The Charmed Circle of Ideology by Geoff Boucher

Review of Boucher, G. (2008) The Charmed Circle of Ideology: A Critique of Laclau & Mouffe, Butler and Zizek, Melbourne:, pp. 288.

PDF Versions: Review by Stuart Sim, Review by Paul Reynolds, Review by Robert Sinnerbrink, Author’s Reply by Geoff Boucher.

Review by Stuart Sim[1]

Neither post-marxism nor postmodernism have ever been the most precise of theoretical positions. They have their roots in scepticism and share the advantages and disadvantages of that approach. Both are reactive and resolutely anti-authoritarian in outlook and skilled at pointing out the flaws in totalizing thought, traits which are highly commendable in the field of ideology critique; but they do fall prey to relativism. The left has found these theories problematical at best, and it is not unusual for charges of neo-conservatism to be levelled against them. Now that the novelty of these positions has worn off, they are undoubtedly ripe for a historically-informed analysis that places them in a wider context of ideological change and realignment in the last few decades. Geoff Boucher offers such a critique, with the emphasis on post-marxism, which I would see as part of the wider movement we dub postmodernism. Yet this post-marxism does not ever acknowledge that there was some kind of pressing socio-political reason for it emerging, rather than just a crisis within Marxist thought itself. Instead, we have what turns into a rather bad-tempered attack on some of the movement’s leading lights – Laclau and Mouffe, Butler, and Zizek ­– which damns them collectively as theoretically ‘incoherent’ (a word Boucher is fond of), implying that there is a coherent theoretical position somewhere which these theorists are wilfully contravening, or perhaps simply do not understand. All of them remain, as Boucher sees it, within ‘the charmed circle of ideology’, offering us little of value in making sense of the culture around us.

It is not hard to pick holes in relativism, and the theorists that Boucher treats are certainly guilty of it, but he never seems to consider why someone would feel moved to embrace what is after all an uncomfortable position for any philosopher or theorist. Were Laclau and Mouffe, et al, just being awkward we might ask, or can any justification be found for their rejection of Marxism? Boucher believes Marxism can be rescued from whatever problems it may have by reworking the theory around some of the more progressive variants of Western Marxism: Althusser is name-checked fairly respectfully, even Eurocommunism is seen to have had at least some merits. The mismatch between Marxist theory and political practice over the course of the twentieth century, one of the primary motivations for Laclau and Mouffe undertaking Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is largely bracketed and we stay in something of a theoretical vacuum, where postmarxists are judged almost entirely on their relationship to the Marxist canon. The work of the theorists under review can come to seem rather perverse in consequence. Apparently none of them realised that they were merely ‘an internal moment of the history of the Marxian tradition’, thus showing themselves in need of a re-education in that tradition’s virtues.

It is a tough read overall, having started life as a Ph.D thesis, and it displays many of the drawbacks of that genre. The prose style is dense, assuming a detailed knowledge of the Marxist theoretical tradition and the often scholastic debates taking place there about the finer points of its concepts, and it is overly concerned to impress with the depth of its knowledge of the relevant literature (the Harvard system of reference is not user-friendly to the general reader). It is locked into this tradition, playing one theorist off against another with little real reference to what was happening outside this rather closed world, where there was much hair-splitting over the precise meaning of terms like hegemony or false consciousness: the charmed circle of Marxist ideologues as one might conceive of it. Doctoral work is clearly necessary if we are to extend our intellectual frontiers, but perhaps more care should have gone into how its findings were presented to a wider audience.

An alternative reading of the situation in later twentieth-century left politics is that someone had to do what Laclau and Mouffe did, because Marxism was patently going nowhere at the point they wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. It would have been far easier for them to stay within the charmed circle of Marxist ideologues, shoring up one bit or other of the theory in yet another exercise in ‘saving the phenomena’ (as many did). Instead, they chose to call its bluff, and thus put into words the frustration that had been building up in so many on the left at Marxism’s increasingly depressing history as both theory and practice. The Charmed Circle of Ideology fails to communicate the depth of the emotional reaction against Marxism in intellectual circles from around 1968 on, the notion that it was no longer a case of just tweaking its theories one more time. Laclau and Mouffe were no isolated figures, they were more like the tip of the iceberg. Much of what they said in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy had been prefigured in the work of such as Lyotard (try his Libidinal Economy to gauge the extent of the bitterness and disillusion on the left post-1968).

Granted, radical democracy, in any of the forms put forward by Laclau and Mouffe from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy onwards, either jointly or separately, is a theory with a lot of gaps and no very clear programme of action, but in its defence it was an attempt to move the debate onto another terrain; to acknowledge that it was time to start again free of the deadening effect of classical Marxism. If there is incoherence there, then it is because the political situation has been constantly shifting in recent decades and no postmarxist would want to claim there is a universal theory that explains it all. To do so would be to raise the spectre of the authoritarianism and totalitarianism associated with classical Marxism, which as Laclau and Mouffe had demonstrated, had run out of credit with the new generation of thinkers.

On Butler, Boucher misses again the motivation behind developing such a theory, the need to challenge a dominant and oppressive narrative (patriarchy this time), that classical Marxism could not quite account for – or was even arguably implicated in. Whether or not Butler’s ideas are entirely consistent is less important than whether they led to a rethinking and reassessment of gender roles by her readers. The provocative aspect of her thought is unappreciated by Boucher, who demands coherence above all and treats her work purely as a theoretical construct to be judged against the Marxist canon, rather than something designed to create debate by unsettling her audience’s socially-conditioned assumptions about gender. Few feminists, or queer theorists either for that matter, are going to be persuaded that Butler can be dismissed so easily on the grounds that her ‘notion of a politics of the performative remains that of abstract individualism, lacking in social specificity and continually wrestling with the pseudo-problem of authorial intentionality’.

Zizek draws at least some grudging respect from Boucher, although as usual the thrust of the argument is to prove the overall incoherence of his subject’s thought – such as his ‘impossible desire to recreate the identical subject-object of history’. Boucher is right to draw attention to the conflicting strands of Zizek’s thought; he is undoubtedly a slippery figure, and what Boucher calls the ‘messianic Marxism’ of his later career can give even his admirers considerable pause for thought. But what might have stimulated Zizek to adopt a post-Marxist perspective in the first place is not really explored all that much. Like Butler, much of his work is designed to provoke, and he has cast real doubt on the concept of false consciousness – on which so much of Marxism’s reading of the last century or so of world history depends.

For all that he claims his objective is to ‘radicalise postmarxian discourse theories towards a postmodern Marxism’ (whatever that may mean in real terms), Boucher delivers what is in effect a hatchet job on his targets that regards them as at best misguided. He is still seeking that elusive universal theory to cover all socio-political eventualities, and his suggestion is that we can find this if we ‘extend the historicised Structural Marxism known as Regulation Theory’ (which according to Boucher Laclau and Mouffe flirt with without drawing the correct conclusions from). However, this merely leaves us stuck within the charmed circle of Marxist ideologues, as if there were no other way of constructing a cultural theory except through Marxism. Marx remains one of the most profound cultural critics of modern times, but he has no monopoly on the development of cultural theory, nor should he be considered always to set the parameters for debate. We do have to question as well why the various interpretations of Marx’s thought in the political arena have tended to turn out quite so badly, whether this should make us wary of what lies at its base. We’ve all heard the arguments that Marx wouldn’t have agreed with what has been done in his name by the communist movement, but that merely takes us back into the endless scholastic wrangles within Marxism about what Marx really meant by such and such a passage. I am not really convinced that Boucher takes us much beyond that rather sad state.

[1] Stuart Sim, Northumbria University. Email:

Review by Paul Reynolds[1]

This work critically maps, for the first time, the tendency of postmarxism defined by the political strategy of radical democracy, from its inception in HSS to its formulation as a distinct tendency in CHU. No previous study presents the combined work of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Žižek as a distinct political tendency and in the light of their total theoretical production. (Boucher 2008, p. 3)

This is a difficult, contradictory and sometimes puzzling text. Boucher’s uneven and uneasy balance of polemical flourish and dense articulation – an adaptation of a PhD thesis, apparently submitted successfully in 2004 but not published until 2008 – argues that “By critically mapping the political trajectory of post-Marxian discourse theory, it seeks to radicalize post-Marxist discourse theories towards a post-modern Marxism” (pp. 3-4). In doing so, he engages in substantial critical studies of Butler, Laclau and Mouffe and Zizek, tracing the development of a post-Marxian political project from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS) to Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (CHU).

Boucher has a particular starting point – the first sentence of his introduction is -“Marxism is at the nadir of its fortunes” (p. 1) – and a particular end point – that post-Marxism becomes captured in its ‘charmed circle of ideology’ by its failure to demark the social and the political from the ideological. In different post-Marxist retreats from Marxism’s foundational ontologies, Ideology occupies the space where ontological content has withered or is absent, within which post-Marxist theory and politics are captured and limited, regardless of its protagonists distinctive and different appeals to radical democracy, performativity or the Lacanian infused subject. In each of his three cases, Boucher seeks to emphasize how, set apart from the universalisms imposed by Marxism, post-Marxist constitutions of the contingent subject collapse in upon themselves, rooted in what is claimed to be a common historicist problematic.

The problem he explores is one widely recognized in critical debate within Marxist and post-Marxist (as well as modernist and post-modernist) theory since the ‘cultural turn’ and the post-structuralist assault on the philosophical foundations of modern theorising of society and social development. Habermas famously laid bare the logical contradiction in Foucault’s trenchant anti-essentialist claims for social life and raised the issue of the conditionality of truth and discourse in post-structuralist thinking (1987, p. 279, passim). Most succinctly, McLennans’ (1996) critique of Barrett (1991) on the politics of truth provided a rejection of the conditional tendencies that post-structuralism inculcated in social theory and a defence of modernist thinking. Post-structuralists are generally concerned to theorise the subject and their social and political context emptied of what it regards as static instantiations and external determinations of the political subject – reductions, functions, structuring agents, essences and universals. Instead, the subject and their context are conditionally and contingently formed or self-forming within a terrain constructed of discourse. The conditionality of each given conjuncture and moment that the subject occupies allows possible releases and possibilities from previously structurally drawn constraints. Hence different post-Marxist thinkers were able to ‘re-theorise’ oppression, exploitation and alienation as no longer seemingly closed by the inescapable grip of ideology – particularly the concept of ideology utilized in Althusser’s (1989) discussion of ideological state apparatus- where structuralist domination seemed all pervasive. For post-Marxists, the particular sins of modern theorizing are encapsulated in the determinations inherent in the materialist conception of history, the primacy of class and the centrality of the capitalist mode of production in the organization of social life (though its manifestation in particular conjunctures is not questioned). It is these features that lay behind an all pervasive concept of ideology. Their absence or deconstruction provides the discursive space and potential for eruptions of subjectivity beyond what is interpellated of constituted by social forces.

This is the terrain that Boucher seeks to occupy in critically assessing the work of leading post-Marxists, and particularly the emergence of what he sees as a coherent political project in the form of radical democracy. For Boucher, this attempt to maintain the spirit of radicalism devoid of the discredited science of Marxism is flawed because:

the political strategy of radical democracy, is governed by the historicist problematic, which acts as a theoretical unconscious limiting the ability of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Žižek to think social complexity and radical strategy… the historicist problematic is characterized by five key positions: the relativisation of theory, the foundational character of ideology, the expressive conception of history, an identical subject-object and a theory of social practice modelled on individual praxis. (Boucher 2008, p. 234)

Boucher recognizes that a consequence of these conceptual failings is have political ramifications of radical democracy, such as the issues of exclusion and the exercise of regulating power in governance, whilst it can often be seen to promise little more than a more cosmopolitan liberal or social democracy. His main concern, however, is to intervene at the philosophical level to show the underlying flaws in post-Marxist thinking.

His alternative to this failure of radicalism is……….. interesting. According to the outside cover of the book, Boucher ‘points to ‘intersubjectivity’ as an exit from postmarxist theory’s charmed circle of ideology’, except that inter-subjectivity only appears briefly in his criticisms of his readings of Butler and Zizek. Boucher’s real plea is for an alternative to post-Marxism composed of an Althusserian and Poulantzian influenced ‘Regulation Theory, neo-Marxist sociology and leftwing Eurocommunism’ (p. 39). Regulation theory is cited as his alternative, but interesting in his 6th footnote of Chapter 1, he acknowledges that he is principally informed by Aglietta’s seminal text (1979) and Boyer’s introductory study (1990) with some reference to Jessop and Lipietz and a name check for Brenner as a critic (p. 46). What is remarkable – given that he returns to regulation theory in his conclusion, suggesting an alternative agenda for theoretical research – is that nowhere is there a sustained discussion of how regulation theory contradicts the ‘distinct political tendency’ that is the subject of the book and an elaboration of this alternative as a theoretical schema and political project. Indeed regulation theory appears mainly as an asserted alternative to Laclau and Mouffe’s radical democracy, with too little elaboration and theoretical exposition as to how regulation theory provides a trenchant critique of post-Marxism. Neo-Marxist sociology and leftwing Eurocommunism are similarly absent, the latter again referred to briefly in a critical discussion of Laclau and Mouffe.

Boucher’s own political and conceptual position – or at least one he has subscribed to and held – is more directly stated on the website and particularly their Blackwood Project of 2002 –, authored with Andy Blunden and others. This grouping asserts that ethical politics is ‘a cultural politics of the contestation of universality’:

Capacities and subjectivity are shaped with reference to forms of universality (the internalisation of norms of conduct, not only as forms of competence, but also as conscious ethical frameworks and moral standards). Without a morality, there is no subject and therefore no social practice. This is because social practices are materially bounded but open-ended, and social agents (while not the creative and completely conscious agents of Giddens’ theoretical fantasia) are never robots or cultural dupes. Social agents therefore require a combination of flexible innovation with self-limiting restrictions: the name for this is the conscious ego with a moral conscience and the theory of the formalisation of morals is ethics. From the Left, ethical politics involves challenging the non-inclusive nature of the dominant universal values (expanding the framework of universality) and demanding that universal values affirmed by the hegemonic alliance be adhered to in practice (confronting capitalism with its own ethical norms). It means the materialist critique of bourgeois ethics by locating the field of bourgeois ethics in concrete social relations and the institutional framework of capitalist society. This is designed to articulate radical ethics, not as some new morality sucked out of a professor’s thumb or scribbled on the back of a leaflet, but as the transformation of bourgeois ethics. This is not their negation for a political instrumentalism where power is its own justification, nor an equally instrumental concept of the dialectic of revolutionary ends and means (which leaves the ethical status of the socialist revolution a prisoner of the mythology of historical necessity). It means developing social practices that connect with the radical criticism of bourgeois ethics. (Boucher

This is worth quoting at length because it gives some insight into what Boucher’s might regard as an alternative project to that of post-Marxism. The problem appears to be, albeit based on a reading of this short text, that a notion of ethics seems to permeate and occupy the space where Marxists might put a politics of class and post-Marxists, under Boucher’s critique, a concept of ideology. Equally, it seems that this ethical politics occupies the space between ‘universals’ and the subject in a way that is open both to a practice based – performative? – politics that is able to expose ‘bourgeois ethic’s, and to speaking to truth through and against universals that seems both constituted by and accessible through ethics. Is Boucher solving the problem or simply changing its conceptual basis? It is difficult to say, and perhaps unfair to set this short political writing against his larger theoretical corpus. Nevertheless, it does contribute to a lack of clarity as to where Boucher’s critical project takes us.

If the devil is in the detail, there are additional concerns about Boucher’s study. Footnote 1 gives an unsettling caveat to his claim to map and explore the ‘total theoretical production’ of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Zizek from HSS to CHU (so at least up to 2000). The footnote is a long caveat as to the other relevant thinkers who are then largely neglected in the text, such as David Howarth and Simon Critchley, and the limited focus of his examination of his principal theorists beyond texts dealing with post-Marxian radical democracy, and (whose ideas in any case have developed and matured since 2000). This includes selective engagement with their theoretical oeuvre, for example with queer theory, whilst acknowledging its importance in Butler’s work. This presents a problem when we come to his critical discussions of in his three main chapters: the selectivity of Boucher’s focus leads to selective readings of the thinkers. Boucher wants to read them as all directly caught within a Althusserian problematic in reading ideology and discourse, which may be one feature of the problems a critical engagement with their thinking engenders. Yet looking at Butler, failing to read her within the context of her Hegelian roots in Subjects of Desire and her subsequent tortured engagement with the relationship between discourse and embodiment in her queer theory texts leads to only a partial sense of what Butler’s project is. It is not that Boucher does not recognize the Hegelianism in Butler’s early PHD publication – he cites in on page 132 – or the issues raised by her queer theory as he gives brief space to reviewing her debate with Nancy Fraser. It is that he seeks to collapse rich, sometimes inconsistent, sometimes contradictory and sometimes critically reflective bodies of work into a particular – albeit critical – focus and concern.

An additional weakness might be found in his tendency, against this reading, to seek to cover every nuance of each thinkers analyses, ‘name checking’ philosophical antecedents and diverse influences in a way that gives an authoritative feel to the text, yet is undermined by the selectivity and inconsistency of his analysis. Whilst he understandably wants to focus principally on the post-Marxist political discourse of his principals, his attempt to be encyclopedic in his criticisms of them yet selective in his reading leaves him open to challenge by those who see the individual thinkers through a focus on their whole oeuvre (an example would be Wozniak 2009).

I want to confine myself to four sets of concerns about Boucher’s discussion in drawing this review towards a close.  The first two are is his easy dismissal of Marxism and his characterization of post-Marxism. He adopts the now standard if dated critique of Marxism as humbled by insufficient grasp of social complexity, a failure to answer anti-essential post-structural critiques, the changed contexts of globalization, social movement and identity politics and the power of neo-liberal and conservative hegemonies. Marxism is fettered by ‘the proletariat as the incarnation of universality’, claims for historical necessity and ‘a rational mastery of society’ characterized by a socialist order without the need for politics (p. 2).

Boucher establishes relatively early that ‘postmarxism in its emergent state remains in a negative dependency on Marxism” (p. 7), and specifically its Althusserian roots.  This is certainly one reading of post-Marxism, and Althusser is a critical influence in thinking the ruptures between Marxist, post-Marxist and neo-Marxist thinking. Yet, post-Marxism is an elusive idea with various overlapping meanings. For Goldstein (2005, p. 2) it is post-structuralist Marxism, directly derived from Althusserian and Foucauldian reconceptualisations of radical thinking within the plurality and diversity of discourses and relations in constituting conditions and subjects of oppression and liberation, celebrated in the articulations of Laclau, Mouffe, Butler and others. Therborn’s (2008) survey begins with a long and thorough analysis of the transformations of 21st Century global politics as a context for post-Marxist development, before identifying Marxism within a dialectics of modernity and what follows within the traditional of critical theory, His survey of what might be regarded as post-Marxism is contextualized deliberately in the context of  the range of left responses within the Northern Hemisphere, signalling the diversity and difference within different currents of thinking. In his broad survey, post-Marxism is acknowledged as a label accepted by Laclau and Mouffe, but ranging from Habermas to Debray to Bauman, before identifying neo-Marxisms ranging from Zizek to Hardt and Negri to Badiou to the politically committed to Marxist politics such as Callinicos (pp. 130-181). This would suggest, as a caution to Boucher, that the post-Marxist ‘genre’ is difficult to encapsulate into a project (and not as moribund as he suggests). Indeed, elsewhere I have taken an alternative position – similar to Geras (1987) and Tormey and Townsend (2006) –  where post-Marxism is best described not by what it purports, but what is absent:

Post-Marxism is a heterogeneous diffusion of radical pluralist, democratic and identity politics, politics of social divisions other than class and post-structuralist and post-modern rejections of grand theory and social schema. What it has in common is a habitual rejection of one or more principal characteristic of Marxist theory: the materialist conception of history; dialectics as social dynamic and method; class and the mode of production as principal, organising and features of human societies; capitalism and class politics as grand narratives in the development of modern societies; and the notion of a single scientific analysis which yielded insights beyond subjective position (Reynolds 2000, p. 260).

Boucher’s post-Marxism is particular and selective, and fails to recognize a richer sense in which in which post-Marxism resists reduction to simply a perceived common political project of radical democracy. Sim (1998) cautions against such a reading in distinguishing post-Marxism and post-Marxism and further between post-Marxism and anti-Marxism, as well as recognising the particular import of feminist critiques, whilst Goldstein’s (2005), who has a similar focus on Althusser, nevertheless sees the importance of including the work of Macherey and Frow in suggesting post-Marxism is an altogether more complex and diverse articulation of political, cultural, economic and theoretical/philosophical engagements, both post-Althusserian and in some important senses pre-Althusserian, in the work of Adorno, Marcuse and the critical tradition, and before that in the applications of Marxist philosophy implicit in Leninism and Trotskyism. In the matter of when Marxism, if at any point it can be seen as a definitive construct rather than a living, dialectically developing construct, post-Marxism might be traced back to Marx himself. Not for nothing, in the context of a political disagreement with French Marxists led by Jean Guesde and his son in law Paul Lefargue over political strategy, did Marx remark “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist”) (a remark cited by Engels in his letter to Bernstein of 2-3 November 1882).

Post-Marxism does have definite political articulations, many coalesced around a notion of radical democracy. However, Boucher’s critique does not choose to identify its main currents, intellectual foundations and consequences. He instead, and perhaps unwisely, tries to collapse philosophical and political debate about what he regards as signal thinkers within post-Marxism, which leads to an unsatisfying unevenness in the analysis.

At the same time, Therborn (2008) provides the caution that Marxism is by no means as exhausted as Boucher’s dismissal suggests. Indeed regulation theory, whilst not located within the traditional corpus of Marxism, is one productive way forward. Another is critical realism, which given Boucher’s concerns might have been expected to have occupied some considerable space in his analysis, but is mainly dispensed with in one footnote – footnote 6 of the introduction on page 14 – and mainly in respect of the somewhat eccentric Bhaskar rather than more critical work such as that of Brown, Fleetwood and Roberts (2001) and Joseph (2007), and Creaven’s (2007) Emergentist Marxism. It is also worth outlining a growing critical literature that seeks to retrieve Gramsci from its ‘eurocommunist’ reading and Laclau and Mouffe (see Lester 2000, Morton 2007, and more recently Thomas 2009). Interestingly, Boucher at one point claims the need for a post-modern Marx yet does not recognize attempts at such a Marxism by Resnick and Wolff (2001, 2006) and the grouping around the journal ‘Rethinking Marxism’ or Carver (1998)

This is not to say these theoretical engagements are not subject to criticism, nor that they map onto easy political strategies, but they, along with those Therborn maps, seem to represent a vibrant resurgent interest and engagement in Marxist theory and Marxist politics that might have benefitted Boucher’s project. Of course, Boucher can legitimately point to the scope of his enquiry as 2000, but perhaps the theoretical and political developments of the period between 2000 and 2008 might signify that times have changed sufficiently for Marxism to be worth some reflection and post-Marxism to be a subject not easily squeezed into a particular problematic in the way Boucher attempts.

Whilst qualifying the current state of the terrain, it is also worth noting, on Boucher’s starting point of Althusser, that whilst Althusser’s writings on Ideological State Apparatus undoubtedly had a significant impact on post-Marxist thinking, particularly that of Laclau, more recent Althusserian scholarship (Elliot 1987, revised 2006, Suchting 2004) has suggested a greater complexity to Althusser’s thinking, particularly in his writings on Aleatory Marxism. This speaks to my third concern, which is that Boucher’s reading of Althusser, as well as his readings of Butler, Laclau and Mouffe and Zizek is selective for the purpose of pursuing this particular analysis. There is nothing inherently problematic about selectivity, but a more reflective, judicious and self-critical tone as opposed to one purporting to prove his analysis, might have made the work more palatable.

Finally, there is also a question-mark over Boucher’s assumption as to what CHU represents. As already observed, Boucher sets out his study with the observation that he is mapping ‘the tendency of postmarxism defined by the political strategy of radical democracy, from its inception in HSS to its formulation as a distinct tendency in CHU’( p. 3). Yet CHU starts with a rather different acknowledgement of the status of CHU: ‘[CHU] …seeks to establish the common trajectory of our thoughts and to stage in a productive way the different intellectual commitments that we have’ (Butler, Laclau and Zizek 2000 p. 1). The remainder of the introduction provides a concise summary of where they see their conjoining and also of the significant and serious differences in theoretical positions between them. Whereas Boucher lists their chapter titles in CHU in arguing that they underline a common sense of requiring a rethink in the context of their struggles with universality within a historicist intellectual context (p. 233), a different reading of CHU might take a different view. Whilst the political project of radical democracy is undoubtedly of interest – and constitutes a political commitment – by the contributors of CHU, it becomes clear that the divergences between them are critical, and that notwithstanding a historicist critique, those divergences might have played a more prominent part in Boucher’s analysis. Whilst any recourse to broad concepts of universality or historicism necessarily operates at a broad level of abstraction, it is nevertheless necessary to engage their manifestations in particular authors or theories in a way that does not make their reading too selective. A feature of this, in reading about the ‘charmed circle of ideology’ is that ideology seems both all-pervasive and flat, rather than nuanced and layered in its determinations, interpellations and spaces for rupture (or contradictions). There is neither a long discussion of the concept of ideology and its nuanced relationship to hegemony, nor a discussion of the relationship between ideology and discourse (see, for example, Dant 1991).  Looking at these, and their different articulations in the writings of Butler, Laclau and Mouffe and Zizek would have a useful starting point and perhaps signalled a rethinking of approach.

What Boucher provides then, is a rather dense and singular reading of post-Marxism, selectively understood through post-structuralist influenced thinkers traced back to problems in Althusserian Marxism’s theory of ideology in ideological state apparatus, It is insufficiently connected to the alternatives he has in mind, and the discussion is insufficiently developed and fails to critically engage with key contemporary development, or demark its limitations, within the context of recent Marxist and post-Marxist scholarship. That said, it would be unfair to conclude without noting that the text shows scholarship, a committed reading, a polemical flourish (which might be not best suited for this work) and some interesting critical ideas. It is also fair to say that it is easy to mount such a criticism with hindsight, that this study would certainly seem to adopt a useful approach and that the author could not be prescient of some of the recent literature cited here (although most is before the publication of this text in December 2008). It is possible to speculate that this is the publication form of a study with perhaps different priorities and focus in its inception that represents an uneven packaging of some interesting insights with some less critical and defensible positions. The conclusion the reader comes to is that Boucher probably has some very important and insightful things to say about post-Marxism and about the reconstitution of a socialist theory and politics, but this text is not an effective vehicle.


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[1] Paul Reynolds is a Reader in Sociology and Social Philosophy at Edge Hill University. Email:

Review by Robert Sinnerbrink[1]

At a time when the prospect of socialist revolution seems rather remote, Geoff Boucher’s The Charmed Circle of Ideology is a rousing clarion call; an ethico-political plea to retrieve Marxist thought from its post-Marxist reduction to ideology critique. To this end, Boucher develops an admirably powerful reconstructive critique of the ‘dialectical’ stages in the development of the “new postmarxian field of discourse analysis and radical democratic politics” (2). In a manner recalling the young Axel Honneth, Boucher maps the essential conceptual contours of the contemporary post-Marxist paradigm, showing how it is indebted to Althusser’s seminal structuralist essay on “Ideological State Apparatuses”, and how it then spawns a series of ‘dialectically’ connected moves that transform Althusser’s structuralist theory of subject formation into a ‘post-structuralist’ theory of ideological hegemony.

The decisive post-Marxist text is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), which elaborates a “new theory of discourse in support of their radical democratic programme” (3). Laclau and Mouffe, according to Boucher, introduce a twofold shift in the Althusserian framework: an alternative theory of discourse and ideological hegemony that draws on post-structuralist philosophies of difference; and an abandonment of orthodox Marxist theory and politics in favour of a radicalised (liberal) democracy that reflects the political dispersion of ideological struggles. Boucher’s challenging task in The Charmed Circle of Ideology is thus to map and critique the theoretical development of this postmarxist field from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to the three way ‘trialogue’ between Laclau, Judith Butler, and Slavoj Žižek in Contingency, Hegemony, and Universality (2000).

In the course of this remarkable critical reconstruction, Boucher develops a line of critique that is reiterated with each of the four authors analysed. Postmarxist theorists, he argues, fall foul of the ‘historicist trap’ in three distinctive ways: 1) by eschewing universalist theoretical and political claims, which relativises their theories of ideology such that these lapse into performative contradiction; 2) by embracing a radicalised form of liberal democracy (Laclau and Mouffe) that extinguishes any remnants of ‘socialist strategy’ in favour of particularist cultural politics (Butler); or 3) by advocating an unstable and untenable form of ultraleftist critique that fails to ground itself either normatively or theoretically (Žižek). The alternative, Boucher avers, is to perform a quasi-Hegelian Aufhebung of the postmarxist paradigm, integrating its critical transformation of structuralist Marxism but rejecting its reduction to ideology critique and postmodern liberalism.

Boucher begins his critical reconstruction by mapping the emergence of postmarxism following the collapse of Marxist theory and socialist politics throughout the 1980s, the democratic revolutions of the late 1980s and subsequent political disappointment that followed in their wake (p. 19 ff.). The shift “beyond Marxism” in the 1990s was couched in the rhetoric of “New Times, New Social Movements, New Democracy” (19), with Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy serving as standard bearer for this emerging movement. The key move was to argue that the New Social Movements (NSM) had historically refuted the old Marxist paradigm; what the “New Times” demanded, therefore, was new theory that would better articulate the heterogeneous and particularist alliances that required greater recognition of identity claims across a wide and diverse range of marginalised subject positions (19-20).

The upshot of this shift, however, was to abandon class politics and economic analysis in favour of cultural politics and ideology critique, now recast as a politics of contingency, difference, and cultural rights (20-21). Marxist theory, including Critical Theory (Habermas), was rejected in favour of poststructuralism in theory and postmodern liberalism in politics. The problem, however, was that this reduction of radical democracy to postmodern politics was accompanied by fatal forms of cognitive and moral relativism; these undermined the kinds of communal, solidaristic, or universalist claims that would otherwise give substance to postmodern political subjectivity. Although equating theory with ideology, postmodern critical theory nonetheless engaged in ideology critique, relying on an unacknowledged normative basis that remained inconsistent with its avowed relativism.

This general line of critique is deepened in Boucher’s critique of Laclau and Mouffe. The starting point of their shift into a discursive politics lies in a selective reading of Althusser that deconstructs its univeralist elements, relativises its epistemic claims, and emphasises the discursive and constructed character of knowledge, subjectivity, and social reality (38-42). This combination of deconstructivist Marxism and radical discursive constructivism, unmoored from universality by a postmodern culturalist-historicist turn, delivers Laclau and Mouffe with a postmarxist theory and politics that strongly resembles a radical postmodern liberalism (71-74). Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which Boucher deftly describes as the History and Class Consciousness of the postmodern (77), amounts to a deconstructed Hegelianism: a complex synthesis of “Structuralist Marxism and Gramscian political hermeneutics with motifs drawn from post-structuralist and contemporary theory” (77).

At stake was Laclau and Mouffe’s aim to replace the “Jacobin imaginary” of Marxist-Leninism with a radical democratic libertarianism that would extend the “Democratic Revolution of Modernity” (78 ff.). Their hermeneutic levelling of the difference between discourse and practice, however, had the unwelcome effect of revealing the speculative and dissonant moments of implicit totality that clashed with their attempts to construct a poststructuralist social theory with strong materialist commitments (78-79). These “crop circles” in the postmarxist theoretical field become emblematic, for Boucher, of the underlying inconsistency between postmarxism’s relativist discursive politics, and its claims to radical democracy and historical efficacy. Boucher’s counterproposal to Laclau and Mouffe (and to Butler and Žižek), is to advocate for a return to elements of Althusserian structuralist Marxism and updated forms of economic Regulation Theory and 1990s Eurocommunism.

Judith Butler’s politics of performativity is subjected to essentially the same critique as Laclau and Mouffe theory of hegemony, which is hardly surprising since Butler’s post-structuralist theory of performativity is presented as a radical gender-oriented variant of it. This critique applied in particular to Butler’s ambiguous concept of performativity, which both enacts a repetition constituting gendered forms of subjectivity, while also being open to being re-enacted, through subversive repetition, by subjects that are paradoxically both discursively constructed and seemingly voluntarist-resistant. The latter, however, is impermissible according to Butler’s synthesis of deconstructed Hegelianism and post-structuralist Althusserianism. Indeed, Butler reads Althusser’s ISA essay, according to Boucher, “upside-down”; not for understanding how structures generate subjectivities but rather for how subjectivities might transform material institutions and corporeal realities (129). For Boucher, however, Butler’s attempt to construct a subjectless conception of agency, and to develop an account of performativity that would explain how subversive repetition is possible, nonetheless requires an individualist model of normative subversion and the cultural-political contestation of limits (129 ff.). Like Laclau and Mouffe, Butler’s radically discursive form of postmarxist cultural politics, which could be described as a “postmodern existentialism”, remains enveloped by a radicalised liberalism (162).

The post-Marxist thinker who does push this line of thought into new but problematic territory is Slavoj Žižek, who advances Laclau and Mouffe’s deconstructive theory of hegemony by rewriting it in the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis (165). Indeed, Žižek’s originality is to have developed a “Lacanian dialectics” deeply indebted to Hegel: an extension of the Althusserian theory of ideology that enables him to argue that the “unruly unconscious subject is the by-product of ideological interpellation”, while at the same time circumventing “the historical problematic of postmarxist discourse analysis” and endorsing a qualified form of (Hegelian) universalism (165). This Hegelian-Lacanian theory of ideology and structuralist account of subjectivity, Boucher remarks, also has the virtue of providing an “ethical basis for democratic socialism” (165).

At the same time, Žižek is driven, apparently by Lacanian premises, to develop a renewed Cartesian conception of subjectivity that also entails “ethical decisionism and political voluntarism” (166). Žižek’s political trajectory culminates, however, with a provocative defence of Leninism and a revamping of the Lukácsian proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history” (166). Boucher identifies the theoretical source of Žižek’s lurch into ultraleftism and metaphysical decisionism in his embrace of a Schellingian metaphysics, a shift that has its correlate, Boucher argues, in Žižek’s erroneous reading of the Lacanian ‘graph of desire’, which places undue emphasise on the dispersion of the ego and unity of the unconscious (166). This shift culminates in a model of the subject mired in the drives that regresses from Žižek’s earlier emancipatory conception of subjectivity, and posits instead an irrationalist core to subjectivity that remains vulnerable to the kind of “Jacobin imaginary” Laclau and Mouffe had successfully overcome.

The implication of Boucher’s expert but arcane analysis is that Žižek deprives himself of the resources available within orthodox Lacanian theory to endorse the kind of rational autonomy required for a plausible model of democratic politics. Instead, Žižek increasingly embraces an ‘irrationalist’ conception of the fundamental aggression of the human subject in its incessant battle with the death drive. Boucher locates this shift in Žižek’s work in the late 1990s (from The Indivisible Remainder (1996) to The Ticklish Subject (1999)), arguing that Žižek abandons his univeralist commitments to radical democracy and rational autonomy in favour of an ‘end of history’ eschatology in which the ‘acephalic’ subject of the drives might enact a revolutionary transformation of a global capitalist system in terminal breakdown.

Boucher’s brilliant immanent critique of all three positions (Laclau and Mouffe, Butler, Žižek) shows through close critical analysis the failure of these theorists to avoid the relativist trap, save for a problematic embrace of either postmodern liberalism or ungrounded forms of ultraleftist politics. What Boucher does not acknowledge sufficiently, perhaps, are the historical, political, and ideological factors that might also explain the particular trajectories taken by these four fascinating thinkers. Žižek’s theoretical shift during the late 1990s to early 2000s, for example, is arguably motivated by the desire to respond to contemporary geopolitical events as well as the increasingly authoritarian turn of neoliberal democracy following the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent ‘War on Terror’. Boucher’s emphasis on the paradigm-shifting force of Žižek’s dalliance with Schellingian metaphysics places a heavy burden on this aspect of Žižek’s model of the subject and of politics. Does Žižek’s theory of subjectivity, and moreover his theory of ideology, remain fatally embedded within this obscure metaphysical framework? Can the Lukácsian figure of the “identical subject-object of history” assume the heavy theoretical burden that Boucher places on it in his critique of Žižek?

Hegel too (as Žižek shows) has Schellingian moments in which the unconscious subject of the drives is presented as the Ur-form of subjectivity (the Hegelian ‘Night of the World’). Moreover, the Hegelian theme of recognition—promulgated by Axel Honneth and to which Boucher signals his allegiance—has an earlier French incarnation (from Alexandre Kojève to Sartre and Frantz Fanon) in which the radical negativity of the subject is firmly underlined. Hence the French existential-Hegelian emphasis on the conflictuality of desiring relations, the irreducibility of struggle, even violence, within human social-historical relations. Finally, Žižek is perhaps better regarded as a neo-Marxist ‘Leftist Knave’—gadfly critic of the status quo whose provocations are permissible so long as they are not enacted—rather than a dangerous neo-Leninist. Instead of programmatic theorising or revolutionary strategy, Žižek opts for incisive ideology critique: the timely critical subversion of prevailing normative frameworks within a crisis-ridden global capitalism. It is not only post-Marxist theorists who remain caught within the charmed circle of ideology.

[1] Robert Sinnerbrink,  Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Author’s Reply by Geoff Boucher

Few authors are granted the privilege of responding directly to the sort of detailed and critical readings of their work that Paul Reynolds, Stuart Sim and Robert Sinnerbrink have given to The Charmed Circle of Ideology (hereafter, CCI). In gratefully (and I hope constructively) replying to some of their many cogent criticisms and pointed questions, I want to focus on what I take to be the central issues in their reviews, namely:

(1) The historical dialectics of Marxism and postmarxism, that is, questions about the scope of CCI, its definitions of the phenomena in question, its contextualisation of this phenomenon, and its understanding of the underlying motivations and political effects of the theorists that it examines.

(2) The recruitment of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Žižek’s ideas to “the tendency of postmarxism defined by the strategy of radical democracy” and the risk of thereby simplifying complex bodies of theoretical work;

(3) The limitations of its synthetic alternative to this particular strand of postmarxism, especially in light of new research on Althusser, the recent theoretical revival in Marxism and the questionable nature of the gesture of replacing “class” with “ethics”.

Of course, CCI was written at a particular moment both historically speaking and in the intellectual evolution of its author. Although Marxism, both positively and negatively, taught us that ideas matter in ways that make mere polite intellectual conversation seem like a symptom of complacency, that tradition, especially in its Leninist incarnation, too seldom distinguished, in the notion of “arguing for a line,” between robust debate and polemical aggression, or between defending an intellectual position and brittle defensiveness. I accept the criticism of the polemical tone of CCI without reservation, but want to note that there is a significant difference between the mood of a work vitiating its insights (through polemical exaggeration, for instance) and the tone of a book prejudicing its reception.

It is striking (and by no means a bad thing) that even today, it is almost impossible to have a neutral discussion about Marx and Marxism. “Marxism” remains an intensely cathected signifier, something that, even in the absence of a work’s polemical overtones, can polarise reception just on the strength of the “plus” or “minus” attached to it. No surprise, then, that Sim can speak of CCI as remaining within the “charmed circle of the Marxist ideologues,” while Reynolds accuses the work of an “easy dismissal of Marxism”. A polemical tone combined with the assignment of both a plus and a minus to Marxism might, with the wisdom of hindsight, have been expected to generate a divided and contradictory reception.

The work accepts three of Laclau and Mouffe’s central criticisms of Marxism. The first of these is the argument that Marxism has not sufficiently understood the programmatic implications of social complexity, so that its political programme implies a functional de-differentiation of society that could only prove disastrous if fully applied. Late Marxism, especially Althusser, made major strides towards an understanding of this condition, but this was never satisfactorily reconciled with the philosophical assumptions that framed Marxism’s political strategies. The second of these is that value pluralism, formal equality and political liberty are effective historical realities in modern societies and that, whatever its limitations, political liberalism sets the intellectual and practical standards that any alternative paradigm must match or better in terms of its promotion of these. Marxism in the twentieth century, considered as a social movement guided by the classical synthesis, represented something like a political project that was based on the claims of justice but lacked a political philosophy. This was a condition summed up by Laclau and Mouffe in terms of the accusation that Marxism combined a Jacobin imaginary with the notion of the withering of the state in what could only be a contradictory politics. Finally, twentieth-century Marxism did not fully accept the historical and moral legitimacy of parliamentary democracy, and its mass-based mainstream remained within the framework of the Leninist reduction of representative government to the political form of capitalist exploitation. Alongside an insufficient theorisation of the conceptual implications of alliance politics – Laclau and Mouffe’s Gramscian category of hegemony – this meant a strategic aporia summed up in the endless debates between reform and revolution, an opposition that Eurocommunism, and postmarxism in its Laclavian form, tried to dismantle. These major historical reasons are presented as the legitimate motivation for the emergence of postmarxism, transcending conjunctural determinations of the phenomenon. For this reason, the study performed by CCI, whatever its allegiance to the emancipatory impetus behind Marxism, could not possibly have taken the form of an external, transcendent critique along the lines of Geras or McLennan, but had to take the form of an internal and immanent critique.

At the same time, CCI argues strongly that conjunctural determinants are at work in the form that this particular sort of postmarxism took. Given that Althusserian Marxism and Eurocommunist politics had sought to address all three of these major problems within Marxism, there must have been extremely good reasons for moving beyond these and into a post-structuralist form of postmarxism combined with the political strategy of radical democracy. But these excellent reasons are precisely what CCI claims not to have found in the leading theorists of radical democratic postmarxism. Instead, the moral relativism and surreptitious reductionism of the post-structuralist framework, summed up in CCI as a historicist problematic, combined with what looks suspiciously like historical repression of those aspects of Marxism that actually pointed Laclau and Mouffe in the direction of their proposed rectifications, suggest an ideological surrender to the “new times” of histrionic anti-Marxism. In framing this critique, I was particular sensitive to the tendency of all of these postmarxists to dispense with the notion of class as quickly as possible, as if a structural conceptualisation of class could not be reconciled with a post-Marxist politics. The Althusser chapter of the original dissertation made this especially clear, and perhaps the published form would have been better off ignoring the publisher’s advice about length in order to clarify the essential political point that class, far from being an embarrassing conceptual encumbrance, must remain at the centre of any post-Marxist (to adopt Sim’s terminology) politics.

Against this conceptual background, the striking thing about all of the reviews is that, despite their differences, there is unanimous agreement that the contention of the book is demonstrated in its own terms. After all, to maintain that relativism is an easy target or that others have also mounted a successful critique of this sort of theory is to concede that, reservations notwithstanding, CCI succeeds in doing what it set out to do, at least in its critical aspect.

These critical intentions were fairly restricted. The book is not about postmarxism as a whole but only about that tendency within the postmarxian field defined by post-structuralist theoretical methods and post-Althusserian sociological assumptions, together with the strategic programme of radical democracy as conceptualised initially by Eurocommunism and then reformulated by Laclau and Mouffe. This particular tendency was selected because its leading practitioners are academic celebrities, so that their “declaration of tendency” in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000) had international intellectual significance. CCI then reconstructs the dialectical sequence of intellectual moves that lead from Althusserianism through this sort of postmarxism and up to the moment of the attempted rehabilitation of universality in the year 2000. The focus is on the philosophical aspects of the postmarxian programme – a focus that, despite my preference for the materialist assumptions of critical realism, could not take the form of an external criticism but needed, for reasons already stated, to have the form of an immanent critique. At its core, CCI claims that the theory of discourse that frames Laclau and Mouffe’s notion of hegemonic articulations is (1) central to the trajectory of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Žižek, as indicated by the “hegemony” part of Contingency, Hegemony, Universality and (2) the root of the problematic tendency to inflate a theory of ideology with distinctly relativist implications into a replacement for Marxian sociology. This mapping of the theoretical problematic assumes some relative autonomy to intellectual questions but does not entirely separate these from historical developments. CCI indicates the major historical contexts in the failure of Leninism and the collapse of communism; the major intellectual contexts lie in the break with metaphysics and the concept of social complexity. At the same time, granting this form of postmarxism a legitimate motivation is not the same saying that it exhibits valid argumentation or successful politics.

An immanent critique implies, from a methodological perspective, reconstructive appropriation of the object under investigation. Sinnerbrink identifies this accurately in his review as involving the proposition that a combination of Regulation Theory, a modified version of the political positions of Nicos Poulantzas as proposed by Bob Jessop, and a theory of ideology that adopts insights from Žižek, might represent the desired theoretical synthesis. Given the restricted scope of CCI, this had to remain tentative and provisional, and in response to Reynolds I have to say that such a synthesis would not rule out a hearing for the way that Göran Therborn reconstructs the field in his very different work, From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (2008), which, unfortunately, was not available while I preparing the manuscript for CCI.

Yet there is a tension in the simultaneous demand for wider coverage of the postmarxian field, on the one hand, and the criticism that the reading of Laclau and Mouffe, Butler and Žižek is selective, on the other hand. Which is it? It is either a wider understanding of the postmarxian field beyond this particular current, or a deeper understanding of the extraordinary complexity of each of these individuals’ projects. I do not see how a work of this length could satisfy both requirements. Of course Butler and Žižek have interesting and important things to say about queer theory and cultural formations, respectively, but I do not see that consideration of these aspects of their programmes would have significantly modified the position that CCI argued. Butler’s social constructivist theory of gender, combined with her somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation of the depth psychology of human sexuality (I mean, her theory of an originary homosexuality, as a counter-balance to what she incorrectly takes to be Freud and Lacan’s theory of originary heterosexuality) rest squarely on the concept of agency that she develops in the context of an appropriation of post-Althusserian theories of ideology. If identity is not deposited in the wake of the subject’s execution of ideological scripts, then it makes no sense to talk about sexuality as an effect of gendered role performances, or about heterosexual melancholy as a consequence of the dialectics of norm and transgression built into these ideological scripts themselves. CCI tackled these at the level of philosophical generality, because it was no part of my intentions to contradict the possibility that Butler’s work also includes deep insights into the psychology of gender that can be thought of as independent of the philosophical framework deployed in the construction of her theoretical position. The relevant dimensions of this for her general theory of agency as arising within ideology are the way that she restates the Hegelian notion of the unhappy consciousness in terms reminiscent of mid-century existentialism. That was discussed in CCI. If this is “selective reading,” then I protest that non-selective reading would involve a lack of the ability to select for relevance. As for Žižek, an equally complex case, Matthew Sharpe and I have recently spent an entire book – Žižek and Politics (2010) – trying to disentangle his multiple threads in order to propose a reading of Žižek that rescues what is important from the provocations and positions that Sim rightly sees as highly problematic.

As for constructive syntheses of new positions, these are a tricky business, and it is clear that Reynolds has advanced a great deal further along this path than I have. I shall read his work with great interest, for intrinsic reasons as well as out of gratitude for the cogent and detailed review of CCI and framing of that work within the wider field that he provides. Because the intentions of CCI were primarily those of an immanent critique and its scope was necessarily highly restricted, however, there was a limit to what could reasonably be done there without either departing from its dialectical methodology or unduly imposing on the reader’s (and publisher’s) patience. Sinnerbrink captures the synthetic ambitions of CCI very clearly in his review, although whether than will satisfy the requirements of a quite different sort of book is open to question. But let me say something about ethics, since it is clearly so much of an irritant as to elicit long quotations from occasional briefing notes and seminar papers published on the web, as opposed to extended citations from the book under review.

The moment of the publication of Contingency, Hegemony, Universality marked a theoretical retreat within this tendency from the aggressive anti-universalism of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I suggest that this was symptomatic of a much wider recognition amongst the proponents of post-structuralist theory that the persistent normative deficit of that sort of relativism had become a serious problem now that Marxism was marginalised, and the real task was to elaborate an alternative to liberalism. It is remarkable that both Butler and Žižek have turned very strongly towards ethical programmes – Butler with her notions of moral responsibility linked to what looks to me like a consequentialist position; Žižek with a sort of universalism that, although it claims a Hegelian provenance, locates its Hegel interpretation within an extension of Kantian deontological reasoning.

The reason, as I understand it, is this: if theories of ideology were intended to explain the existence of social agency through their introduction of historical contingency into what had hitherto been a closed form of neo-functionalism; then the question of agency, when located in the subject through a theory of ideology, necessarily reintroduces issues of accountability in its wake. Far from being a problem, this provides the opportunity to rectify the normative deficits of postmarxian theory – but only if the over-inflation of the category of ideology, diagnosed at length in CCI, is first corrected. Uncorrected, this will indeed be the position that makes “a notion of ethics … permeate and occupy the space where Marxists might put a politics of class and post-Marxists, under Boucher’s critique, a concept of ideology”. It is no part of the agenda of CCI or my work subsequently to substitute one over-inflated category for another, but rather to try to tease out elements of a new social theory that copes with social complexity while, in a normatively cogent way, dealing with questions of social justice.

Žižek, I believe, comes closest to a formulation of the problem that might get beyond the impasse of Althusserian neo-functionalism without lapsing into what I continue to regard as the charmed circle of a hypostatisation of ideology. Althusser maintained that mutual recognition was the basic paradigm of ideological misrecognition and that this is best grasped through a theory of the institutional construction of social identity, which implies that: (1) ideology permeates all of the other structural instances of the social totality because it is relevant to the performance of tasks in economy and administration, as well as actions in civil society and the family; and (2), ideology considered from the functional perspective can be regarded as a series of institutional apparatuses that are responsible for the production of social subjectivity. Laclau and Mouffe made important strides forward in liberating the workings of ideology, so conceptualised, from the requirements of neo-functionalism, and in opening up the space for understanding the historical effectivity of ideological forms of subjectivity through an acknowledgement of historical contingency. But their theory, in coping with aspect (1) of ideology, mistakenly inflated ideological discourse into the social substance, thus negating the specificity of aspect (2) of ideology and rendering invisible the effectiveness of economy and politics. Žižek does not recognise this problem at all – if anything, he intensifies it – but he does understand that once relatively separated from functional requirements driving social reproduction, a concept of agency implies a notion of accountability, and he makes an argument for a deontological understanding of moral responsibility that could, through familiar dialectical moves that take us from Kant to Hegel, explain mutual recognition within this framework. Reading The Sublime Object of Ideology, For They Know Not What They Do and Tarrying with the Negative as the outline of a theory of ethical life, based on the standard Hegelian contours of the working up of the struggle for recognition through ascending forms of universality towards positive freedom, would mean lending the thesis of “mutual recognition as ideological misrecognition” some normative substance. Because this is already lodged within a theory that de-couples ideology from seamless social reproduction, ethical life is not instrumentalised (although it is conditioned), and the claims for recognition of ideologically-formed subjects involved in social conflict could be understood to have real normative force. At the same time, however, it would be necessary to relocate this theory of ideology within a conception of the social formation that would capture some of the things that Althusser was trying to describe about social complexity and functional relations, without the burden of his “Spinozist eternity” of social reproduction.

But this reading of Žižek, as supplying something akin to the Habermasian distinction between “system” and “lifeworld,” only becomes possible through a critical reconstruction of his complex position, and in closing let me again enter a plea for the dialectical methodology of CCI. Negation – shorn, perhaps, of unnecessary polemical inflection – is a crucial step in any theoretical reconstruction; premature synthetic gestures without sufficient consideration of the intellectual connections between positions can just lead to syncretic eclecticism. The Charmed Circle of Ideology is neither a rejection of Marxism, nor a dogmatic reassertion of Marxism. It is something entirely different: one of the only studies to engage in a sufficiently close analysis of the positions of Butler, Žižek, Laclau and Mouffe to place its refutation of the anti-universalist and anti-Enlightenment animus of these leading theorists, and their lazy hypostatisation of ideology under the sign of “discourse,” beyond question; but one that does so in a way that equally refuses the path of least resistance, which is to sweep these complex positions aside with a gesture of impatience and grasp for neo-Marxist positions without considering the merits of a reconstruction of the theory of ideology of this kind.