Hegemony and Discourse Theory

Democracy as Empty Signifier in International Relations

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2009
27 Pages, Grade: 20/20

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I. Wendt and Althusser: Ideology and International Relations

II. The Subject of Hegemony: The State as Personhood

III. Neorealist and Neo-Gramscian Hegemony

IV. Laclau’s and Mouffe’s Concept of Hegemony: Empty Signifier and discursive Hegemony




The objective of this research paper was to apply Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s discursive theory of hegemony to the study of IR. I first compared Alexander Wendt’s Constructivism with Althusser theory of ideology and claimed that what Wendt calls “collective meaning” does not evolve process-like, but is the result of a hegemonic struggle. In avoidance of an autonomous and self-transparent notion of the state in IR, I claimed that a state is an overdetermined instance; i.e. a hub of different overlapping discourses which is thought of as a person in order to facilitate an understanding of it. A discursive hegemony goes beyond Neo-Gramscianism by giving a new model of cultural articulation and by rejecting essentialist concepts of actors (as state as such or global class), in order to provide a discursive understanding of world politics. I c concretize my analyses at times with references to democracy, which, as it was shown, functions as empty signifier within a global hegemonic formation.


The concept of democracy is a constituting axiom of the west. At least since the Berlin wall has broken down and the so called “Free World” has came off victorious of the cold war, democracy is considered as the founding precondition of most of our western values.

Recently the notion of democracy was introduced in the study of International Relation with the purpose to show that “democracies do not fight democracies” (Waltz 2000, p.7). This democratic peace theory is based on Immanuel Kant, who maintained that a majority of people would be opposed to an upcoming war - except a war of self defense - and that if all nations would be based on a republican system there would be no war, since there would be no aggressor (cf. Kant 1795). Furthermore Michael Doyle (1997, p. 230) argues that “a pacific union of liberal states has been growing for the past two centuries”. What should be outlined here, however, is not the democratic peace theory as such or its validity, but rather the fact that democracy is used as a synonym for stability and that it is believed “that democracies constitute a zone of peace” (Waltz 2000, p.7) through a certain community based on democracy.

For Mousseau (2000, 2005) the answer to the strong correlation between democracy and peace can be found in the market-oriented development of western democracies. He argues that “voters” are interested in assuring global trade through international law and free and equal access to global markets. Fukuyama (1992, p.15) claims that this “move toward political freedom around the globe,” would have been everywhere accompanied, “sometimes followed, sometimes preceded, by a liberal revolution in economic thought”. Kenneth Waltz (2000, p.15), who maintains that “democracies of the right kind (i.e. liberal ones) are peaceful in relation to one another,” confirms that

to the supposedly peaceful inclinations of democracy, independence adds the propulsive power of the profit motive. Democratic states may increasingly devote themselves to the pursuit of peace and profits. The trading state is replacing the political-military state, and the power of the market now rivals or surpasses the power of the state, or so some believe.

Here, Waltz reveals in quite cynical way of which kind a peaceful democracy should be. So “liberalism and democracy, whose articulation is constitutive of liberal democracy” (Mouffe 2005, p.88), should be treated as two sites of the same coin (“peace and profit”). What this all amounts to, is that liberalism in this way has been articulated in a specific way, producing a certain modality of understanding the concept of democracy. Thus the main point here is that what is meant when we speak about democracy is always the result of an established way of thinking.

To see how this way of thinking works in real politics one should remember two utterances by two former US Presidents. Bill Clinton affirmed that “democracies don’t attack each other” (Clinton, Bill. (1994) while George W. Bush (2006) asserted that “democracies don’t go to war with each other”. But

if [democracy is] God’s gift to humanity, and the U.S. Government sees itself as the chosen instrument for showering this gift on all the nations of the world, then those who oppose U.S policies are rejecting the noblest gift of God to humanity. (Zizek 2004, p. 45)

Zizek addresses the discussion toward two important thinkers who wrote on democracy, John Rawls and Francis Fukuyama.

In Political Liberalism Rawls raises the question of how would it be possible to create a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines (cf. Rawls 1996). Chantal Mouffe criticized Rawls in the following way: “The function of this distinction between reasonable and unreasonable is to draw a boundary between the doctrines that accept liberal principles and the ones who oppose them.” Since Rawls relegates those reasonable divisions to the private sphere, arguing that their reasonability will provide a consensus among the public sphere, he assumes that those elements who oppose this kind of just society have to be unreasonable. Thus he “dictates what is legitimate and he do it according to what fits with his basic premises, but since those premises are presented as the expression of the reasonable, they cannot be challenged.” (Mouffe2005, p.230) Democracy, in the case of US foreign policy, and Rawls’ just society share both the idea of exclusion.

Even Fukuyama operates with exclusion in his famous book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama (1992, p.13) poses the question of “whether a coherent and directional History of mankind will eventually lead the greater part of humanity toward liberal democracy.” Derrida (1994, p. 61) argues that “the whole book is inscribed in the unexamined axiomatic of this simplified – and highly Christianized – outline of the master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit.” Derrida characterizes Fukuyama’s analysis as Christianized because he refers to democracy as a democracy to come, i.e. aware of the fact that empirical data is in contrast with his liberal democratic ideal, Fukuyama, according to Derrida, believes that

“to this extend, the effectively or actuality of the democratic promise, like that of the communist promise, will always keep within it, and it must do so, this absolutely undetermined messianic hope at its heart, this eschatological relation to the to-come of an event and of a singularity, of an alterity that cannot be anticipated” (Derrida 1994, p.65)

Roughly speaking, democracy becomes uncertain; the democratic ideal and its implicit consequence cannot be achieved, but must be thought of as a future present, i.e. “a future modality of the living present” (Derrida 1994, p. 65).

As it was shown above, there are certain meanings which are attached to the concept of democracy without being engaged with it directly. To make a point, it could be mentioned the exclusive character, the stabilizing effect, the articulation with liberalisms, which transformed the meaning of democracy, or democracy as a democracy to come. In the following pages I will try to reformulate these aspects of democracy, by outlining a discursive theory of hegemony, and apply it to the IR’s.

I. Wendt and Althusser: Ideology and International Relations

In this section I will try to approximate Wendt’s Constructivism with Althusser’s theory of ideology (which is also an important reference for Laclau and Mouffe) and try to show that what Alexander Wendt conceives as collective meaning is not the result of a process, but - with Althusser - the result of a political struggle (a hegemonic struggle in this paper).

“Anarchy is what the state makes of it“(Wendt 1992, p. 392) is Wendt’s famous constructivist statement concerning the realist view of IR, which postulates that states are self interested actors in an anarchic system of states. In this section I will try to compare Wendt and Althusser in order to introduce the concept of ideology in IR.

Wendt argues that “both modern and postmodern constructivists are interested in how knowledgeable practices constitute subjects” (Wendt 1992, p. 394). If this statement is translated in Althusser’s language it would be as follows: “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existents” (Althusser 2001, p. 109). Both are interested in how a “symbolic” objectivity constitutes subjects.

Wendt continues arguing that “actors acquire identities – relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self - by participating in such collective meanings” and that “how they view the meaning and requirements of this survival therefore depends on the process by which conceptions of self evolve” (Wendt 1992, p.402). Here Althusser would agree with Wendt and add that “it is not their real condition of existence, their real world, that men represent to themselves in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there” (Althusser 2001, p.111). Althusser, however, does not agree with the fact that these conceptions evolve process-like but claims that “it is possible to hold that ideologies have a history of their own (although it is determined in the last instance by the class struggle)” (Althusser 2001, p.108). A specific role or condition of existence, according to which an actor behave, is given to the subject by ideology or collective meaning. Instead of conceiving it as the result of an evolving process, Althusser maintains that it is the result of a specific struggle (in this paper I will argue that it is a hegemonic struggle).

But how it is possible that a certain meaning or a certain signifier is identified with its referring object? Charim (2002) argues that it is a reciprocal relation because on the one hand the sign guarantees for the object, which guarantees for the uniqueness of the sign. This is what makes ideology transparent; the overlapping of signifier and referent guaranties, that ideology has to do with real objects, that it is related to the “real” world. Thus

as collective knowledge, they are experienced as having an existence over and above the individuals who happen to embody them at the moment. In this way, institutions come to confront individuals as more or less coercive social facts, but they are still a function of what actors collectively "know." (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p.58)

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Hegemony and Discourse Theory
Democracy as Empty Signifier in International Relations
Free University of Bozen-Bolzano
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ISBN (Book)
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International Relations, Ernesto Laclau, Hegemony, Constructivism, empty signifier
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Christoph Kircher (Author), 2009, Hegemony and Discourse Theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/147452


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