THE PLACE OF POWER IN POLITICAL DISCOURSE by Saul Newman (International Political Science Review (2004), Vol 25, No. 2, 139–157 (a discussion document)

The following article on the ‘place of power in political discourse’ by Australian political scientist/theorist Saul Newman first appeared in The International Political Science Review in 2004. The subject it deals with, the nature and concept of power — as outlined by Michel Foucalt — relates to the anarchist critique of — and struggle against— the State. We welcome any contributions to the discussion, which should be emailed to us; these will be posted in due course.

Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984) – French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, philologist and literary critic

ABSTRACT. This article examines the concept of a central, symbolic place of power in political theory. I trace the genealogy of “place” from sovereign conceptions of power in classical political theory to the problem of state power in radical politics. I then examine the theoretical and political implications of Foucault’s reconfiguration of the concept of power, in particular, his contention that power does not have a place, but rather, is dispersed throughout the social network.  I argue that this decentralization of the concept of power denies a universal dimension that “sutures” the political field.  I critically engage with the limitations and flaws of Foucault’s theory of power, and turn to the work of Lefort and Laclau for a more viable understanding of the relationship between power, its place or non-place, and the contemporary possibilities for radical politics.

This relationship of domination is no more a “relationship” than the place where it occurs is a place. Michel Foucault  (1984:85)

Since Foucault’s reformulation of the concept, power is generally thought of in terms of “relationships.” However, in this article I want to focus, not so much on the relationship of power, although this will inevitably come into it, but rather its “place”—the place of power.  What do we mean by the place of power?  From its beginnings, political theory has always conceived of power as emanating from a central, symbolic place or position in society. For Hobbes, power was centred in the political body of the sovereign, whose temporal authority was preferred to the “rapine   savagery” of war.  The Hobbesian legacy has persisted for centuries— political   theory   has continued to see power   as being   centralized in a state apparatus or in a series of political institutions. However, Foucault’s microanalysis of power  (in which it was seen as decentralized, diffuse, and organized methodologically around antagonistic force relations) has led to the abandonment of “place” as a way of conceptualizing power.  This  “decapitation” of the sovereign figure of power, however, has had serious implications for radical politics.  The political field can no longer be seen in Manichean terms, as a struggle between power and the subject that seeks to emancipate itself from it.  This article will examine the effect that this absence of a central place of power has had on radical political theory. As a way of addressing these problems, I will propose an alternative model of  antagonism to the one developed by Foucault—one constituted around the notion of an  “empty” place.  The implications of this for radical post-Marxist political theory will be explored through the work of Claude Lefort and Ernesto Laclau.

The Place of Power

The  “place of power” refers here to an abstract symbolic position, through which both power relations and political identities are organized and constituted. Thus, in classical political theory, power was embodied in the figure of the sovereign.  In monarchical society, for instance, power was invested symbolically in the body of the king, the incarnation of divine right.  With Hobbes, we find the desire to make power more   transparent.  Therefore, power, in the   Hobbesian paradigm, was gathered in the Commonwealth and forged through a “contract.” While the form in which this power appears was immaterial  (its purpose was solely to quell disorder), it was still centralized in an absolute place in society.  Moreover, this power continued to be embodied in an image of a sovereign body—this times an “artificial” one.  The image of the body is, in this way, mapped on to political society, functioning as away of organizing power relations around sovereign institutions and laws. Modern political theory is also inhabited by this image. The sovereign head and its associated limbs are embodied in the state and its various agencies and bureaucracies. In liberalism, the place of power was legitimized through the social contract. In radical political philosophies (namely Marxism, socialism, and anarchism), the place of power was seen as an oppressive and illegitimate arrangement. Both political traditions were united, however, by this notion of the centrality of power.

There is another side to this logic of the place of power, however. Whereas, the place of power is the symbolic centrality through which power and political identity are invested, it produces a counter-dynamic in the logic of the revolution designed to overturn or “displace” this place. The political revolution aimed at seizing or overthrowing power in society is the logical counterpart to the centrality of power in society. However, it has often been the case that revolutions against power have ended up reaffirming it. There would appear to be something in the very nature of revolutions that perpetuate power, often in new and more authoritarian forms. Thus, the form of power changes, but its place, its structural imperative, remains the same. Therefore, we might say that there are two aspects to the place of power. The first is the one we have discussed— the symbolic and structural centrality of power in society. However, this centrality is always instantiated in a second aspect—the perpetuation of power in revolutionary politics. It is as if the place of power is always haunted by an inverse double—the spectre of power that is reaffirmed in its very overthrowing.

Marxism, Anarchism, and the Problem of the State

A reference to this two-sided operation of the place of power is found in the theoretical debate between classical Marxism and anarchism. Although Marxism and anarchism emerged from similar traditions in 19th-century socialist thought, and shared a common critique of capitalism, they were radically split over the question of the state and centralized political authority.

While Marx, at times, allowed the state in capitalist society a considerable degree of theoretical autonomy from the direct political will of the bourgeoisie, 1 he did in general see the state as a reflection, if not the instrument, of the power of the dominant economic class. Domination in capitalist society emanated from the   economic power   of the   bourgeoisie, the   state   providing the   mask   of universality for the particularity of these relations (see Marx, 1970: 107). Because of this, Marx believed that the state, if it was taken over and controlled by the proletariat, would lose its political character: “When class domination ends, there will be no state in the present political sense of the word” (1978a: 545). Therefore, because   political   relations are   derivative   of class relations, once   these   are abolished, then, strictly speaking, political power no longer exists.  The depoliticized state in the  “transitional period” following the socialist revolution would be under the control of the proletariat: “There corresponds to this also a political transition in which the state can be nothing but the dictatorship of the proletariat” (Marx, 1968: 327).  Because, for Marx, the proletariat embodied the universality of society2  (precisely through its specific relation to the productive process) the transitional state would operate on behalf of society as a whole. Marx saw this transitional state as a temporary arrangement, and Engels claimed that it would “wither away” when no longer necessary (Engels, 1969: 333).

Anarchists argued, however, that to expect the state to “wither away” of its own accord was simply naive and neglected the reality of centralized political power. Rather, state power must be destroyed as the first act of the socialist revolution. This was because the state was an autonomous institution, beyond the control of class, and had its own specific logic—that of self-perpetuation. Therefore the Marxist “transitional state” was merely one of the guises of state power, through which it would articulate itself in increasingly authoritarian ways. In other words, it did not matter which class controlled the state—what   was important was the structural principle or the place of state power itself. Bakunin argues that Marxism pays too much attention to the forms of state power, while not taking enough account of the way in which state power operates: “They [Marxists] do not know that despotism resides not so much   in the form of the State but in the very principle of the State and political power”  (Bakunin, 1984: 221).  So the state is oppressive no matter what form it takes—whether it be a “bourgeois” state or a “workers’ state.” Indeed, Bakunin predicted that the Marxist workers’ state would resolve itself, not in the abolition of class, but in the creation of a new set of class divisions—between a new bureaucratic class and the rest of the population (1984: 289).  Therefore, the state could not be seen as a neutral tool of revolution, as Marx proposed. Rather, it was, in essence, a structure of domination that was irreducible to class or economic relations.

The major theoretical achievement of anarchism was precisely to unmask both the autonomous dimension of political power and the dangers of its reaffirmation in a revolution if neglected. Power was to be understood in terms of an abstract position or place in the social, and as having its own structural imperative, which instantiated itself in different forms, including that   of the   Marxist workers’ revolution itself. Therefore, the place of power was not something that could be easily overcome, and was always in danger of being reaffirmed unless addressed specifically. Anarchism thus exposed the limitations of Marxist theory in dealing with the problem of power and authority. Blinded as it was by its economic determinism, Marxism failed to see power as an autonomous phenomenon that was irreducible to economic factors, and which required its own specific analysis. The anarchist critique of classical Marxism allowed radical political theory to conceptualize an autonomous political domain that was at least as important as the economic domain.

The Manichean Paradigm

The political philosophy of anarchism can only be understood in terms of a radical conceptual division between two ontological principles: natural authority and artificial authority. Natural authority, embodied in “natural laws,” is essential to man’s existence, determining subjectivity and forming the ground for an essential social commonality, and for rational and ethical relations between individuals  (see Bakunin, 1984: 239). 3      This   order is opposed to   “artificial   authority”—the centralized power and authority embodied in political institutions, such as the state and man-made laws. This authority is external to human nature and an oppressive   intrusion upon the subject and the natural functioning of society. Political power is seen, then, as fundamentally oppressive, thwarting the full development of the subject’s humanity. Therefore, central to anarchism is the dialectical   struggle   of the subject against the external, “artificial” obstacles of power and authority that stand in his or her way—that deny his or her freedom and humanity, and distort rational social objectivity.

So there is an essential antithesis in anarchist discourse between the order of power and the order of humanity. Jacques Donzelot sees this Manichean logic as endemic to radical political discourse:

Political culture is also the systematic pursuit of an antagonism between two essences, the tracing of a line of demarcation between two principles, two levels of reality that are easily placed in opposition. There is no political culture that is not Manichean. (1979: 74)

Moreover, it could be argued that anarchism, in subscribing to this oppositional logic and making the state the focus of its analysis instead of the bourgeoisie, has fallen into the same reductionist trap as Marxism (see Donzelot, 1979: 74). In substituting the   state   for capitalism   in this way, anarchism remained within classical conceptual categories that bound Marxism.  Both discourses involved a reduction of the political field to a central struggle between a place of power and a place of subjectivity.

Manichaeism therefore constructs a clear demarcation in the political imaginary between power and subjectivity. However, we can also detect in this relationship of opposition a hidden and deep-rooted mutual dependence between power and the subject.  The identity of the subject is constituted only through its relationship of opposition to   the   power   that   denies   it.   In   anarchism, for   instance, it   is paradoxically the state, as an external obstacle to the progressive self-realization of the subject, which at the same time allows the identity   of the subject to be constituted in opposition to it.  The identity of the subject is characterized as essentially   “rational” and   “moral”   (that is, capable   of a full realization of humanity) only insofar as the unfolding of these innate faculties and qualities is prevented by the state. Without the existence of political authority, in other words, the subject would be unable to see itself in this way. The existence of political power is a means of constructing this absent fullness in the subject.

Foucault’s “Decapitation” of Sovereign Power

This paradoxical relationship between power and the subject presumed to oppose it is one   of the central   political   problems identified by Foucault.   Foucault’s “analytics” of power showed that power relations could no longer be confined to a central place, but rather were constitutive of all social identities. One of Foucault’s main contributions to the theory of power was his attempt to study power in its own right, rather than reducing it to the central mechanism of class or economic domination. Like the anarchists, he believed that to see power in these terms was to neglect its actual operation: “So long as the posing of the question of power was kept subordinate to the economic instance and the system of interests which this served, there was a tendency to regard these problems as of small importance” (Foucault, 1980a: 116).

However, Foucault also went beyond the possibilities of the anarchist analysis of power in two fundamental methodological respects.  First, for Foucault, power can no longer be seen as being embodied in a central symbolic or structural place in society. To see power in this way, as both Marxism and anarchism did, was a form of reductionism designed to avoid the problem of power—the fact that power permeates all levels of society. Just as power cannot be reduced to the economic dominance of the bourgeoisie, nor can it be reduced to the institution of the state. Indeed, both anarchism and Marxism are two instances of what Foucault considers to be the excessive emphasis placed on the problem of the state: anarchism sees the state as the primary oppressive force in society, while Marxism, although it sees the state through the reductionist lens of its economic analysis, still overvalues the importance of the state in maintaining capitalist productive relations (see 1991a: 103).  Foucault   suggests, then, that the only way to avoid the reaffirmation of power is precisely to reject explanations that confine power to a central place. Marxist and anarchist conceptions of power would be two sides of the same coin in this respect.  They remain caught within a traditional “juridico-discursive” notion of power: that power is centralized within a symbolic place of authority, be this the king, the state, the bourgeoisie, and so on. For Foucault, this is an out-dated notion that no longer has any relevance to political theory.  “What we need,” as Foucault said famously, “is a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty….  We need to cut off the King’s head”  (1980a: 121). Instead, Foucault (1980b:  99) maintains that the analysis of power must start from its “infinitesimal mechanisms”—from the multiplicity   of practices, relations, techniques, and discursive operations that intersect at all levels of social reality, running through institutions such as the prison, the factory, the hospital, or the psychiatric ward.

The second methodological consideration is that, for Foucault, power is fundamentally productive, rather than repressive.  Unlike the classical paradigm, in which the operation of power was seen to deny human subjectivity, prohibit freedom, and distort the objective truth of social relations, Foucault sees power as that which produces and incites. Subjectivity itself is produced, rather than denied, by power.  Moreover, according to Foucault, the subject central to revolutionary discourse,  “the man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself” (1991b: 30).

This reconfiguration of power presents classical radical politics with a number of problems. First, by pointing to the permeation of power throughout society, it denies radical politics an identifiable target of revolution (such as the state) and in so doing, undermines the Manichean division between society and power. Second, it denies radical politics a privileged political subject—the subject who is to be emancipated from power.  It makes problematic the very notion of the place of power and the place of resistance, upon which traditional radical politics is based. In other words, there is no longer an essential, universal position of resistance and emancipation beyond power: “there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary” (Foucault, 1978: 95–6).

The “Strategic” Model of Politics

What Foucault’s  “micro-political” analysis amounts to, then, is a displacement of the concept of power itself. The image that inscribes power and politics, for Foucault, is no longer one of sovereignty, but one of war. Foucault’s methodology of power is based on the idea of conflicting force relations:

If power is properly speaking the way in which relations of forces are deployed and given concrete expression, rather than analysing it in terms of cession, contract or alienation, or functionally in terms of its maintenance of the relations of production, should we not analyse it primarily in terms of struggle, conflict and war? (1980b: 90)

In other words, conflict is the ontological condition for power relations and politics. The metaphor of war operates here as a methodological “grid of intelligibility” for power (Foucault, 1976: 16). This antagonism of forces is perpetual, and inscribes itself into the political field—becoming re-codified into laws, institutions, and even in language itself. This “strategic” understanding of politics and power therefore unmasks the radical diffusion   of forces behind the sovereign image of place. Indeed, in   his   outline of   a   Nietzschean genealogy, Foucault    describes a fundamental struggle of “forces” that occurs in a “non-place,” that is, a purely differentiated relation of antagonism, without the stable political identities that would otherwise unify the political field: “only a single drama is ever staged in this ‘non-place’, the endlessly repeated play of dominations” (Foucault, 1984: 85). The struggle of forces that underlies identities and power relations (as well as relations of   resistance to   power) is therefore so absolute and antagonistic that   it undermines any sense of a common political ground.

Power and Identity

One of the consequences of organizing power, subjectivity, and resistance methodologically around relations of antagonism has been   a crisis in radical political imaginary.  Radical politics could no longer be organized around a spatial opposition between power and the universal subject.  Rather, the political field would have to be seen in terms of an on-going antagonism of forces, localized forms of resistance being generated by specific relations of power, without the hope of a final emancipation. Foucault’s intervention here may be seen as part of the so-called “postmodern political condition” characterized by the breakdown of once central political narratives and ideologies, the dissolution of stable political identities and institutions, and the decline of utopian projects and discourses  (see Heller and Fehér, 1988). In this new “paradigm,” politics is seen as thoroughly indeterminate and   contingent.  For instance, as Ernesto Laclau   and   Chantal Mouffe show, the radical political field that had hitherto been   united by the universal subjectivity of the proletariat and its struggle against capitalism has been succeeded by an explosion of new political identities and struggles: women, ethnic and sexual minorities, and environmental groups  (2001: 159). So it would appear that the  “displacement” of place has led to a “re-mapping” of the social field. Identities and struggles that were previously ignored by radical political discourse have become politicized.

However, the problem with this diffusion of identities and struggles is that it can lead to a complete fragmentation of the political field. If we are to see the political field in terms of relations of force, the problem is that this antagonism can lead to the dissolution of the very political dimension it constitutes. This is because the political   field   also relies   on   some   universal   dimension—the possibility of a common ground being articulated between different struggles and identities. So if identities and   struggles   become increasingly   particularized  (as has been   the general trend in contemporary post-industrial societies), the political field will disappear altogether. This is a problem identified by Laclau:

This, in my view, is the main political question confronting us at this end of the century:  what is the destiny of the universal in our societies? Is a proliferation of particularisms—or their correlative side: authoritarian unification—the only alternative in a world in which dreams   of global human emancipation are rapidly fading away? (Laclau in Butler et al., 2000: 86)

In classical radical politics, the universal revolutionary subject provided this common emancipative horizon.  However, if, following Foucault, this notion of the universal revolutionary struggle   is no longer sustainable, then   how can a universal political dimension itself be sustained?   Indeed, Foucault   speaks of a struggle of differences and representations that takes place in “a pure distance, which indicates that the adversaries do not belong to a common space” (1984: 85). Perhaps this  “non-place” that Foucault refers to is precisely this erosion of the political.

Power, Antagonism, and the Real

However, what if we were to conceive of antagonism in a different way—one that, paradoxically, allowed   a universal   dimension to   emerge from   these relations themselves? What if we were to conceive of antagonism, not on the basis of Foucault’s force relations, but rather on the basis of the Lacanian “lack”?

According to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, identity is always lacking, incomplete, and   only partially constituted.  That   is to say, identity   is actually constituted through its own lack—through its fundamental incompleteness. The identity of the subject, for instance, is constituted by structures of language— the symbolic order. However, there is always a structural gap or lack between the subject and his or her symbolic identity.  In other words, subjectivity is based on a failed identification. For Jacques Lacan, the subject is represented by a  “cut” or radical discontinuity in the signifying chain: “This cut in the signifying chain alone verifies the structure of the subject as discontinuity in the real” (1977: 299). There is an excess or surplus of meaning produced by this failed encounter with the symbolic—a radical void between the identity and meaning, which the subject inhabits.  It is important to note   here   that   the   lack does not   refer   to some essentialist core of the subject that escapes symbolization.  Rather, the lack in identity is caused by a radical void or internal limit in the symbolic order itself. This is what Lacan refers to as the  “real”—that which cannot be symbolized.   It is an irreducible void around which identity is both partially constituted and dislocated. The Lacanian real, in this sense, prevents the completion or fullness of identity.

According   to Laclau, whose thinking is influenced by Lacanian theory, the notion of the real has direct political effects. Because the real is both outside and inside the symbolic (because it functions as the internal limit to symbolization) it sets in place an endless series of political identifications in the attempt to fill the void in the symbolic, an operation that is ultimately impossible.  In other words, the real has hegemonic effects—that is, because it makes the fullness of identity structurally impossible, it generates the imperative (desire in Lacanian terms) at the level of the symbolic, to attempt to fill this lack with one’s own identity.  To give an example, the Marxist notion of class struggle would be an attempt to symbolize or come to terms with what was ultimately unsymbolizable—the traumatic dislocation at the heart   of social representation itself.  It is here   that the real provides a different way of approaching the notion of antagonism. Laclau argues that society is an “impossible object”—that is, it can never be fully represented or grasped, precisely because   of the   internal limit of representation itself.  This applies to any ideological attempt (whether conservative, liberal, or radical) to represent the social field.  Indeed, that is why there are competing political and ideological representations of society—not because of an actual antagonism that rends society apart, but because of the discursive limits of society’s own objectivity, and therefore its fundamental inability to be wholly represented:

In terms of the theory of hegemony, this presents a strict homology with the notion of “antagonism” as a real kernel preventing the closure of the symbolic order … antagonisms are not objective relations but the point where the limit of all objectivity is shown. (Laclau in Butler et al., 2000: 72)

It is here   that antagonism qua real is different from the Foucauldian under- standing. Foucault’s notion of antagonism as a series of conflicting force relations underlying power and identity leads, as we have seen, to the dispersal of identity itself. It implies a Nietzschean idea of “absolute difference” between adversaries, so that there can exist no common ground between them, only a fluidity of positions and relations. By contrast, the notion of antagonism qua real entails a partial fixity of the politico-ideological field. Antagonism here performs two methodological operations: (1) it displaces identity, opening it to contingency and indeterminacy; and  (2), at the same time, it also constitutes identity—on the basis of its own limit. In other words, rather than   identity   and   relations being   entirely   fluid   and differential, they are partially fixed. Rather   than   the field of antagonism being completely diffuse, it would be structured around its own constitutive lack. So, as well as antagonism destabilizing political and social identities, it also provides an internal limit around which they are constructed.

This idea of partial   fixity refers to Lacan’s idea of the point de capiton or “anchoring point.”  According to Lacan, while signifying systems which constitute meaning are characterized by the metaphoric and metonymic movements between signifiers, so that meaning is never wholly determined or complete (which is why we are always engaged in searching after an impossible   fullness of meaning), nevertheless, there are “master signifiers” in this chain which, at certain privileged “nodal points,” anchor the signifier to signified, thus allowing meaning to be partially fixed. An example of this is provided in Lacan’s discussion of psychosis. According to Lacan, psychosis (which is the inability of the subject to constitute meaning) is characterized by “foreclosure” (Verwerfung)—the radical failure of the subject to register the  “Name of the Father”  (nom du père).  The  “Name of the Father” operates here as a “master signifier” which fixes meaning through a kind of structural interdiction or prohibition (against incest).  This does not refer to an actual father’s  “no,” but rather a structural function of the signifier that provides an anchoring point around which meaning can be partially constituted. When this function fails (when the subject fails to register this interdiction) his or her system of meaning, around which his or her world is formed, breaks down. Lacan likens this to the removal of the “woof from the tapestry” (1997: 102)—in other words, a particular “thread” that quilts the entire field of meaning vertically, without which meaning disintegrates.

This idea of anchoring or  “quilting” points may be applied directly to the politico-ideological field.  We see that our understanding of politics, the way we constitute our political identities, is ultimately dependent upon ideological and discursive systems of meaning through which we make sense of our world.  The breaking down of essentialist identities and universal paradigms (for instance, the notion of the dialectic as the motor of history, the status of the proletariat as the embodiment of the universality of society, the idea of an objective social reality whose “natural laws” determine political and social events, and so on) has meant that politics is ultimately an indeterminate and contingent enterprise. This is why political identities are said to be antagonistic—that is, constituted through the undecidability of representations. However, the other side to this operation, as I have shown, is that meanings and identities are also partially fixed.  Certain key signifiers, which organize meaning, operate in the contemporary political world. For instance, Size talks about   the   way that   “Communism” functions as an ideological quilting point around which different representations are constituted:

If we “quilt” the floating signifiers through “Communism”, for instance, “class struggle” confers a precise and fixed signification   to all other elements: to democracy (so called  “real-democracy” as opposed to “bourgeois formal democracy” as a legal form of exploitation); to feminism  (the exploitation of women as resulting from the class-conditioned division of labour); to ecologist (the   destruction of natural resources as a logical consequence of profit- oriented capitalist production); to the  peace  movement (the  principal danger to peace is adventuristic imperialism), and so on. (1989: 87–8)

This would be an example of the operation of the  “nodal point” in the politico- ideological field—that which fixes meaning to different discursive elements when they are refracted through it. We can see in this the two methodological functions performed by the notion of antagonism qua real—both displacement of meaning, through “floating signifiers,” as well as the partial constitution and stabilization of meaning achieved through this very displacement.

If we accept these two fundamental functions of antagonism qua real, we have a somewhat different conception of the political field to the one envisioned by Foucault.   While, for Foucault, the political field itself is dissolved through the struggle of heterogeneous forces, for the Lacanian-inspired “discourse analysts” (Laclau, Zizek, and Lefort), the political field is open   and indeterminate, yet “sutured,” or held together through the discursive limits of this openness. What are the consequences of this for the notion of “place,” however? As I have argued, the idea of an essentialist place  (the Manichean division between the place of power and the place of resistance) is no longer sustainable. However, as I will show in the following section, we can theorize a notion of a partially constituted place— one that allows a contingency of identities and political actions, yet, at the same time, provides certain discursive and, indeed, ethical limits to the political field. I will explore this possibility by discussing two different, yet related, approaches to the problem of place in contemporary political theory:  Lefort’s idea of the  “place of power” in democratic theory and Laclau’s argument about   the role of the universal and particular in the politics of hegemony. Both thinkers, as I will show, engage with the problem of how to theorize an empty place in politics.

Lefort and the Democratic “Empty Place” of Power

In the previous section, I have introduced an alternative methodological conception of antagonism to the one developed by Foucault:  antagonism as partial indeterminacy and partial fixity (via the Lacanian real), rather than antagonism as absolute difference and heterogeneity. Let us apply this notion to the question of power directly.  As I have shown, for Foucault, the notion of antagonistic force relations underlying power means that power itself is thoroughly dispersed and decentralized, eschewing the idea of a central mechanism or symbolic place.  As Zizek points out, however, the problem with Foucault is that there is always a disavowed spectre   of power that   haunts his “concrete” analyses of particular, localized power relations and practices.  That is to say, Foucault’s theory of power only makes sense if one acknowledges that behind the plurality of practices, relations and discourses, there looms a symbolic dimension of power which these practices and discourses implicitly refer to—and yet it is precisely this dimension which is denied by Foucault.  Therefore, there is always an unbridgeable gap in Foucault’s  “bottom-up” analysis between micro-practices and power  (Zizek, 1999: 66).

So, while Foucault’s analysis might appear to be more  “concrete” in the sense that it claims to be discarding symbolic  “sovereign” notions of power, focusing instead on the direct, local “power effects,” there is in fact nothing concrete about this. Paradoxically, power only has “concrete” meaning if it refers to an “abstract” symbolic dimension. One could argue, then, that there is a tension in Foucault’s account of power between the methodological and analytic levels of explanation. Methodologically, power is seen through the metaphor of war, as decentralized force relations. Yet analytically, power is seen as not only being   inscribed in dominating institutions and discourses  (such as the prison and sexuality), but also as implying   clear   normative questions, such   as that   of resistance to various practices which seek to tie the individual to a discursive identity.4

As an alternative to this, perhaps we could say that power does indeed have a central mechanism (a “deeper” symbolic and structural identity), albeit one that is flawed and incomplete. As Etienne Balibar shows, this return to the notion of a “structure” or “apparatus” of power does not mean that power is to be seen as absolute—rather, as a structure, it is deficient and lacking:

I would say against Foucault  … that there is power; even a power apparatus, which has several centres, however complex and multiple these  “centres” may be…. But, having said this, I shall parody Lacan and add: power cannot be all; in fact, in essence it is “not-all” [pas-tout], that is, deficient. (2002: 136) This would be a way of seeing power relations as organized around a symbolic mechanism or place—albeit one which is lacking and constitutively  “empty.” The point here is that what is important about power  (what gives it an identity and what allows us to understand its operation today) is precisely this  “abstract” structural and symbolic dimension that is dismissed in Foucault’s account. For instance, it would allow us to understand resistance to power as emerging from its very deficiency and dislocation: “every power structure is necessarily split, inconsistent; there is a crack in the very foundation of its edifice—and this crack can be used as a lever for the effective subversion of the power structure” (Zizek, 1996: 3). Furthermore, the dislocation or emptiness in the identity of power may allow us to perceive the conditions for the legitimate exercise of power  (for example, democratic power).  For classical radical politics, power was illegitimate because it sustained a gap between itself and  “the people.” For instance, Marxism saw the state   as illegitimate because   it   represented the   particular interests    of   the bourgeoisie, rather than the universal interests of society. For anarchists, the state was illegitimate because it ruled in its own interests and had its own logic, which was not under the control of society as a whole. What both of these conceptions of power pointed to was a crisis in representation—in other words, there was always a gap between power and  “the people.” However, as Zizek (Butler et al., 2000: 94) points out, what if this distance between the people and power is precisely what is characteristic of modern democracy—in other words, of the legitimate function of power? It is here that Lefort’s notion of democratic power is important. Lefort employs this notion of the deficiency and structural emptiness of power to argue that democratic societies are constituted on the basis of their own discursive limits. It is precisely this symbolic distance   between   “the people” and   powers that   is the defining feature of democracy. According to Lefort, modern political systems are no longer characterized by the symbolic consistency of the sovereign image of power.  Democracy, he says, is “instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty”  (Lefort, 1988:  19).  Power in sovereign systems of rule was embodied in the figure of the king and it was this that gave society a body. However, the  “decapitation” of this sovereign head left political societies with an empty place of power. In other words, the symbolic place of power once occupied by the figure of the king still remains, but is now empty. There is no political identity that   embodies this place   fully, and   it is marked by a radical absence   and indeterminacy: Modern democratic society seems to me, in fact, like a society in which power, law and knowledge are exposed to a radical indetermination, a society that has become the theatre of an uncontrollable adventure, so that what is instituted never becomes established. (Lefort, 1986: 305)

Modern democratic systems are therefore organized and constituted around this empty place of power. Democracies are always characterized by a tension between two imperatives:  the egalitarian, universal imperative, embodied in the social (the will of “the people”) and the sovereign, institutional imperative, embodied in the legal apparatus. One provides a check or  “counterweight” to the power of the other, ensuring that the place of power remains empty, that no political identity or group can become “consubstantial” with it. In this way, democratic systems are characterized by a central and constitutive antagonism between these two logics— indeed, they are the very “institutionalization of conflict” (Lefort, 1988: 17).

Let us explore Lefort’s notion of institutionalized conflict.  First, this idea of conflict differs from that inscribed in the oppositional logic central to classical radical politics.  As we have seen in the Manichean universe, there is a central conflict between two essential points of departure: the place of power and the place of subjectivity. This conflict is, however, dialectically mediated toward its own overcoming. The aim of revolutionary politics is to overthrow the irrational and oppressive political structures that deny universality to society, and to overcome the alienating division between the people and power.  Once this happens, social conflict and antagonism will cease, the distortions of power, ideology, and religion will fall away, and society will become transparent and reconciled with itself. By contrast, Lefort’s notion of conflict is irreducible and nonessentialist. Rather than emanating from fixed political positions, conflict is what allows these positions to be constituted and reconstituted. In other words, it is precisely the indeterminacy in the social that is produced by this tension, which allows new political identities and representations to be articulated. What is sustained by the place of power as empty is the structural imperative for various political actors and identities to seek to “fill it,” by claiming to represent the  “whole of society” or the  “majority will.” However, because it is impossible for this place to be filled, because no identity can become “consubstantial” with it, as Lefort argues, this creates a contingency in the process of political identification, transforming existing political identities and allowing new ones to take their place. In other words, because the place of power is symbolically  “empty”  (that is, failed and incomplete) politics in democratic societies is characterized by a fundamental indeterminacy. So, rather than being overcome in   a dialectical   fashion, this   antagonism is the   vital constitutive dimension of society. It is precisely what produces new political identities in a contingent and nonessentialist way.

It is precisely on this point, moreover, that Lefort’s notion of conflict differs from Foucault’s.  Unlike the Foucauldian idea of conflict, which leads, as I have said, to the dissolution of society (to elimination of place entirely), Lefort’s idea of conflict retains the idea of place, yet sees it as empty. In other words, for Lefort, political identities and positions in society are partially fixed. The conflict that, for Foucault, leads to a diffusion of the social into a series of force relations, for Lefort is precisely what allows society to be constituted, to achieve an identity.  In other words, conflict (or antagonism) provides the discursive limits through which social identity emerges.  Again, we see the two crucial implications of antagonism qua real: partial indeterminacy and partial fixity.

Laclau’s Politics of Hegemony: Universalism and Particularism

Lefort’s notion of the  “empty place” thus allows the political field to be seen as partially constituted. Laclau also attempts to articulate a notion of place in politics, one that is discursively constructed through hegemonic relations and which, moreover, provides   a universal   dimension for a radical   emancipative politics.

Laclau’s thinking may be seen as an engagement with the political implications of the   “postmodern condition.”  Contemporary political   struggles   are no longer founded, he argues, on the   essentialist   subjectivity of the   proletariat, or the centricity of the struggle against capitalism.  Indeed, radical politics today must fully assert the contingency of identity, and the indeterminate and open-ended nature of struggle.

At the same time, however, Laclau is sceptical of the so-called  “politics of difference” that is said to characterize contemporary multiculturalism—in other words, the idea that political identities are purely differential, particularized, and incommensurate with one another. This fragmentation of the political field into a series of competing particular identities (social, national, cultural, and ethnic) is seen as symptomatic of the death of the universal subject and the emergence in its place of a multitude of “subject positions.”  Indeed, the dispersal of identities and the  “localized” struggles of resistance implicit in Foucault can also be seen in this context of the death of the subject and the politics of difference.5 However, Laclau sees the idea of a purely particular or differential “subject position” as problematic because it implies a fixed position or location within a totality—and, as Laclau (1996: 21) argues:  “what could this totality be but the object of experience of an absolute subject?” In other words, what is implied, yet disavowed, in the “politics of difference” is precisely a place of enunciation, which forms a background upon which these differential “subject positions” and identities are constituted.

Let us try to formulate this in structural terms.  As we know from Saussure, language is a series of signs within a fixed system or structure of differences. A linguistic sign (composed of signifier and signified) only has an identity insofar as it is different from another linguistic sign. The differences between signs, however, can only be established if they refer to a fixed background or system that constitutes them.  That is to say, something only has a differential identity if its position within a system of differences can be fixed at a certain point.  For instance, what would happen if this fixed system of differences were to break down completely?  The linguistic signs within this system would entirely lose their meaning because their differentiation from other signs could no longer be established. If we apply this argument to the political field, we see that the politics of “pure difference” paradoxically presupposes a kind of universal limit or common background, which constitutes and fixes these identities in their difference. However, the quandary for political theory is, as Laclau argues, that this universal dimension can no longer be seen as an essentialist, objective foundation outside politics  (as in the dialectic or some notion of rational social objectivity), but rather, must be seen as thoroughly within the field of politics and constituted through these differences themselves:  “Now, the only way of defining a context is, as we have seen, through its limits, and the only way of defining those limits is to point  out  what is beyond them”  (1996: 52). As Laclau shows, however, what are beyond these limits can only be other differences, and therefore it is impossible to establish whether these limits are internal or external to the context. What this amounts to, then, is the very undecidability or indeterminacy of the limit itself, and, if we accept that political identities are only constituted in relation to this limit, this means that these identities themselves are indeterminate and unstable. We can see here again the methodological notion of partial   instability and   partial   fixity that   I have outlined. Like Lefort, Laclau sees politics as operating not among relations of absolute difference (as in Foucault), but in relation to a universal dimension or place, which is, empty and which partially fixes political identities.

It is here that Laclau’s notion of hegemony can help us. For Laclau, the political field is constituted by two irreducible poles or principles (the universal and the particular) and the dynamic that operates between them.  Now we have seen that because there is no longer any universal subject or metaphysical foundation for politics, this dimension of the universal is “empty”—that is, it can no longer be embodied in an objective content. The universal remains as the empty horizon of politics (the  “empty signifier”) that cannot be filled, and yet, precisely because of this, generates the   desire   or structural imperative in political   identities (the particular) to fill or embody it. It is this political operation of attempting to fill the  “unfillable” place of politics that Laclau refers to as the logic of “hegemony”: “The universal is an empty place, a void which can be filled only by the particular, but which, through its very emptiness, produces a series of crucial effects in the structuration/destructuration of social relations”  (Butler et al., 2000: 58). We can see, then, the way in which Laclau’s universal empty place parallels the empty place of power in Lefort—both employ the Lacanian notion of an absent fullness created by the real, which is the void or internal limit to the symbolic order. In other words, for both thinkers, there is a political dimension or place that is symbolically empty and   which can only be articulated through a contingent relation of representation, in which a particular political identity comes partially to embody it.6 Both notions of this empty place have concrete effects (“structuration/destructuration” or fixity/destabilization) on the political field, as they generate the very contingency in political identity which is constitutive of it.

So, similarly to Lefort, Laclau shows that politics can be reduced neither to essentialist determinacy nor to a complete “postmodern” dispersal of identities— neither, in other words, to absolute universality or absolute particularity. Both are reductionist paradigms that deny a properly political domain. Rather, politics must be seen as involving a contamination of the universal and the particular. Political identities are split between   their   own particularity and the dimension of the universal that constitutes them in their particularity. Political identities, no matter how particular, cannot exist without a dimension of universality that contaminates them.   It is impossible for a group to assert a purely separate and differential identity, because part of the definition of this particular identity is constituted in the context of relations with other groups  (Laclau, 1996: 48).  For instance, the demand of a particular minority for cultural autonomy always bears reference to a universal dimension—the demand for the right to be different is also a demand for equal rights with other groups.  It is also the case, however, that the universal is contaminated by the particular. As we know, the universal is formally empty, so that it can only articulate itself if it is represented by a particular political identity. However, we also know that because the universal is formally empty, no identity can completely represent or embody it. In other words, the universal, for Laclau, is an “impossible object”  (like Lacan’s object petit a) in that its representation is, at the same time, impossible and necessary. For instance, the idea of society is an impossible  “discursive” object the universality of which can only be represented if a   particular ideology   or   political   identity   (communism, for   example) can articulate a certain   vision of it.  While no particularity can fully symbolize this universal, its partial symbolization is crucial if we are to have any notion of politics at all. Therefore, the universal requires that a particular element “stands in” for it, without   which the universal itself loses all meaning. Here   we see, then, that although the universal and the particular are the opposite poles of the political field, each is dependent on the other as its positive condition.

So in this hegemonic relationship of mutual contamination, the universal is split between   its universality   and   its need   to be represented through a concrete particularity, while the particular is split between its particularity and its reference to a universality, which constitutes its horizon (see Laclau in Butler et al., 2000: 56). As I have shown, even the most particular of identities, if it is to engage in any form of political activism, has to refer to some universal dimension, such as the notion of equality of rights with other identities. So to articulate a certain demand, a political identity must form what Laclau calls “chains of equivalence” with other identities and groups.  To give an example, the demand of students for better conditions and more funding cannot remain within this specificity for long; these demands will eventually overlap with the demands of other political identities in forming relations of united opposition to the power that denies them.  Thus, the government that denies students their rights also denies workers their rights, and so on.  In this way, the groups in this chain are increasingly unable to maintain their own particularity, as they become united in opposition to a common enemy.

It is important to note here that this hegemonic political relationship, in which one   particular identity   “stands   in” for the   others, is not   determined in an essentialist way. In other words, there is no a priori link (as there was in Marxism with the proletariat) between the universal and the particular identity that comes to incarnate it.  According   to Laclau, the   relation of incarnation is entirely contingent and indeterminate. The  “stand in” is decided in an open   field of discursive articulation and political contestation. Theoretically, any identity, if it manages to articulate adequate chains of equivalence, can come to represent a common political struggle.  Furthermore, the particularity that  “stands in” for the universal   does   so only   temporarily, and   its identity   is destabilized by the universality it “represents” (Laclau, 1996: 53). In other words, its status as a representative is increasingly   made   more   difficult   to sustain   as the   struggle progresses, as it is caught between the imperatives of its own particularity and the universality it is required to embody.  Therefore, because this link is indeterminate and contingent, this opens the political field to other identities to attempt to fulfil this incarnating function.

 The “Ethics” of Place

It is here that I can perhaps draw briefly upon the question of ethics and politics. While Lefort and Laclau do not develop a theory of ethics as such, I would suggest that there is an ethical dimension implicit in their politics.7   the question of ethics is important to this discussion because, for Laclau and Lefort, politics takes place in a contingent and indeterminate field. That is to say, there no longer exist absolute rational or moral grounds for deciding which identity is to fulfil the hegemonic function.8   This was a question that in some ways dogged   Foucault’s notion of resistance to domination: what are the criteria by which forms of resistance can be normatively justified? Here, however, I would follow Laclau and draw a distinction between the normative and the ethical. The category of the normative involves pre-established criteria   for justifying certain   actions, whereas   the   ethical   involves precisely an impossible gap between the subject and the normative criteria that are supposed to guide his or her action.  The ethical action or decision, in other words, takes place in an abyss or void in which pre-established normative criteria are not clearly   perceived.  In   Derridean terms, ethics   involves a moment of madness. According to Laclau, hegemony is the name given to this unstable relationship between the ethical and the normative (Butler et al., 2000: 81). In other words, in the hegemonic relationship described above, there is always a gap between the universal   and   particular, between   the   empty   place   of the   universal   and   the particular identity, which attempts, ultimately unsuccessfully, to embody it. We find the same relationship of impossibility in Lefort, where there too is a gap in democratic societies between the empty place of power and the political identities that try to fill it. The point here is that this gap or lack in representation does not signify the failure or breakdown of ethics, but is, on the contrary, ethical in itself.9

This is because it opens the field of politics to different identities, to a radical freedom and undecidability of decision.  To fill the gap, to overcome the lack in representation, would amount to a totalitarian closure of the political field.

If political   ethics involves sustaining a gap between   the universal   and   the particular, then it must also involve, as I have alluded to before, a contamination of these two terms. In fact, we can refer here to a political ethics of contamination, in which identities are caught between their own particularity and the universality that they inevitably invoke. There are three possible articulations of this ethics of contamination. First, as we have seen, contemporary radical politics cannot be reduced to a minoritarian politics of difference: identity politics, in this sense, is ultimately   self-defeating   if it attempts to maintain a purely separatist political position. Likewise, it cannot be reduced to a foundationalism based on a universal subjectivity or a Manichean division of the world, as was the case with anarchism and Marxism. Rather, radical politics is the effect of a contamination between particular concerns, interests, and   identities and   the   universal   emancipative horizon, which they inevitably bear, reference to.  Second, if we are to see the particular as pertaining to the standpoint of the individual and the universal as referring to the standpoint of the community, we can say that radical politics today, if it is to be emancipative, has to involve a contamination of both concerns, or indeed, a deconstruction of the classical division between them.10 Third, we can also see the universal as pointing to the principle of equality and the particular to the principle of liberty. Classical liberal theory has generally drawn a distinction between these two principles, seeing them as mutually limiting.  However, both anarchists and Marxists believed that liberty and equality were interconnected and dependent upon one another, and that freedom was only possible in society when all were equally free  (see Bakunin, 1984:  267).  Perhaps contemporary radical politics can take from this a notion of liberty-equality (or  “equaliberty” in Balibar’s [1995:  72] terms) as an unconditional and necessarily excessive ethical demand. In other words, what would perhaps be constitutive of radical political ethics would be a refusal to separate liberty and equality, a refusal to see one as imposing limits on the other, and a conviction that it is simply unjust to do so. This would form a kind of ethical horizon, or even an ethical demand, which would inform   the radical political struggles of today.


What this implies is an ethics of the “empty place”—an ever-expanding horizon for radical politics that can never be entirely   grasped, and which thus generates on-going struggles   of emancipation.  I have suggested   here   that   place   is an irreducible and necessary symbolic category in radical political theory, allowing us to conceptualize power relations, resistance, and subjectivity. I have also discussed three articulations of the problem of place, as well as three concomitant modes of antagonism that are constitutive of it: first, the Manichean paradigm of classical radical politics, in which the place of power is ontologically separated from the place of subjectivity and resistance, and where the antagonism between the two is dialectically mediated toward the overcoming of power itself; second, the Foucauldian “displacement” of the sovereign place of power through the diffuse antagonism of  heterogeneous force  relations, which  denies   consistency  to  the political  field itself; and  third,  the  notion of the  empty place of power,  articulated through an  alternate model  of  antagonism—one implying  both  partial displacement and  partial  fixity of political  identities. Through a discussion of its application in the work of Lefort and Laclau, I have suggested that this last understanding of antagonism and place is the most fruitful for radical politics, allowing us to navigate a “middle road” between, on the one hand, essentialist universality, and on the other, the politics of difference and particularity.


1. See, for instance, Marx’s theory of the Bonapartist state in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (Marx and Engels, 1975: 96–166).

2. The proletariat, for Marx, is “a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal” (1978b: 538).

3. Kropotkin (1947:  45) believed that these ethical relations were in fact based on an instinct in men toward mutual aid and assistance, rather than competition.

4. As Foucault states it: “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover who we are, but to refuse who we are….  The political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to liberate the individual from the State and its institutions, but to liberate ourselves from the State and the type of individualization linked to it” (1982: 216).

5. Hence Foucault’s wager that  “Man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (1973: 387).

6. Here, Laclau takes Lefort’s argument about the empty place of power even further: “That is why Claude Lefort’s argument, according to which in democracy the place of power   is empty, should, I think, be   supplemented by the   following   statement: democracy requires the constant and active production of that emptiness” (Laclau, 2001: 12).

7. There have, however, been a number of debates on the relationship between ethics and hegemony between Laclau and Simon Critchley (see Critchley, 1998).

8. Laclau raises this question explicitly: “I have been confronted many times with one or other version of the following question: if hegemony involves a decision taken in a radically contingent terrain, what are the grounds for deciding one way or another?” (Butler et al., 2000: 79).

9. Laclau refers to the ethical as the “infinite process of investments, which draws its dignity from its very failure,” (Butler et al., 2000: 81).

10. Indeed, as Laclau argues, the  “moment of the ethical is the moment of the universality of the community”  (Butler et al., 2000: 80).


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 Biographical Note

SAUL NEWMAN received his Doctorate in Political Science from the University of New South Wales in 1998, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Western Australia. His research is in the area of contemporary political theory and post-structuralism, with particular focus on the themes of power, ideology, radical politics, hegemony, psychoanalysis, and post- Marxism. His publications include From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, “Spectres of the Uncanny: The ‘Return of the Repressed’ in Politics” in Telos, and  “Derrida and the Deconstruction of Authority” in Philosophy and Social Criticism. ADDRESS: Department of Political Science, 35 Stirling Highway Crawley, WA 6009, Australia [email: [email protected]].