This essay briefly introduces the work of Ernesto Laclau in relation to universality and particularity and offers illustrations of Laclauian principles in Malaysian socio-politics.
Ernesto Laclau (1935 – 2014) was an Argentine philosopher whose worked in critical theory and political philosophy sought to challenge gridlocks of neo-liberalism and re-imagine new emancipatory projects. One of Laclau’s key contributions to political philosophy was the analysis of the nature of hegemony, especially as expressed in political representation, or, how specific political parties can ‘stand in’ for entire communities. He asserted that political hegemony is constitutively inadequate because, in principle, the particular cannot represent the universal. There will always be elements that cannot be fully integrated into the national narrative of harmony and order, such as marginalised communities and unique social concerns.
Put simply, governments need to position themselves as the representative of the ‘people’, promising a fullness or harmony which the nation must aspire to and which only they (the particular party) can deliver:
Something which does not cease to be particular has to demonstrate its rights to identify its own particular aims with the universal emancipatory aims of the community…(The) very possibility of domination is made dependent on the ability of a limited historical actor to present its own ‘partial’ emancipation as equivalent to the emancipation of society as a whole. (Laclau, 2000: 46)
This explains (at least partially) why Malaysia’s ruling regime frequently portrays itself as the ones who ‘liberated’ the country from the colonial powers. Every ruler must justify what it has ‘done’ to deserve to rule; in some ways a meta-version of an election ‘report card’.
Yet – surprise surprise? – specific leaders and groups can never be a proxy for the whole nation, not only because of ‘practical’ issues (e.g. can the National Front really represent every single desire, concern and dream of every Malaysian?) but because the very idea of the ‘nation’ or ‘people’ is itself constituted by the powers that be (e.g. to what extent has the concept of the ‘Malaysian’ been determined and taken over by the ruling regime?). The point here is that the universal (or the ‘Malaysian’) is NOT something natural or plainly given or without controversy, but is itself contaminated by whoever is in power.
To use a less negative example, in many families not only is the father the head of the household but he is also the one who defines and controls what the family is all about, its goals, visions, priorities and so on.
(Universality) can never be represented in a direct way – there is no concept corresponding to universal representation…(which) in spite of its necessity, is also impossible. This means that universality (as represented by particular groups) is always going to be a distorted representation. (Laclau, 2000: 56).
To reiterate, a distorted political representation occur because particular partisan groups can NEVER act as a complete proxy for the entire community. The ‘empty signifier’ – or institutional lie – is thus an empty symbols meant to conceal the truth of this disparity within the polity.
As an illustration, in Malaysia the ruling National Front’s logo cum slogan 1MALAYSIA (“People First, Performance Now”) is put forth (even named) as inclusive of, thus benefiting, all the communities in Malaysia. That this is at best a contaminated universality is clear given the regime’s very vulnerable majority in parliament, oppression of the indigenous people, promotion of institutional racism, suppression of freedom of speech, abuse of human rights, and other crimes.
1MALAYSIA is thus an empty signifier tasked to bind the party to the voters’ good graces even as it exposes the incommensurability between rhetoric and fact. Anybody who’s not already sold out to the party will realise it’s an outrageous attempt to maintain control of the ability to define what Malaysia is all about. Needless to say, the role of an empty signifier is also to domesticate or disavow the fact that power is unevenly distributed and unjustly wielded.
That this was demonstrated in the aftermath of Anwar Ibrahim’s “Sodomy II” trial is not at all surprising. The post-verdict statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) demonstrated paradox of hegemony. On one hand, the ruling regime had to say something; on the other hand, the very act of saying something (especially so quickly, within minutes of the verdict being read) raises question. On one hand, as the government in power, the ‘legal process’ had to be defended as uncontaminated, true and universally binding. On the other hand, the PMO’s statement is stained, on account of its very existence, by particular interests of certain people. On one hand, the PMO had to appear neutral and disinterested; on the other hand, it doth protests too much.
This, in essence, is what Laclauian hegemony is about: Powerful parties seeking to maintain political control by presenting themselves as ‘natural’ representatives of those they exercise power over and offering vacuous symbols to smooth over the distortions and gaps necessitated by the nature of universality constructed.
Alwyn Lau is presently pursuing a PhD at Monash University (Malaysia). He has published several papers which offer readings of Malaysian politics through psychoanalysis and critical theory. His most recent paper is Intimating the Unconscious: A Psychoanalytical Refraction of Christian Theo-Political Activism in Malaysia, published by Sage.
Laclau E (2000) Identity & Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics. In: Butler J, Laclau E, and Zizek S (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, University: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London: Verso, pp. 44–89.