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Reflections on Laclau 


Ernesto Laclau, who passed away on Sunday, April 13, 2014, is known primarily as an Argentinian political theorist who wrote about populism, socialism, and political discourse. Populism is commonly referred to as a type of politics that exalts the ‘people’ and pits them against the elite. Laclau’s work on populism and political discourse has important ramifications for how we can reconceptualize the role of new social movements, such as Occupy.

Even though the formula for populism is relatively simple, a conception of people vs. power, the genesis of the concept is complex. Initially, two bodies of academic literature emerged in two different regional contexts to explain certain cases. In 1934, an Italian sociologist named Gino Germani immigrated to Argentina, fleeing from Mussolini’s fascist regime. Once in Argentina, he wrote about what he saw as a new form of politics evidenced in the leadership of Juan Perón – a type of politics he characterized as a ‘national popular’ movement that blended aspects of democratic participation and authoritarianism. This model could also be extended to characterize the leadership of other mid-twentieth century Latin American politicians, such as Vargas in Brazil and Cardenas in Mexico. In this sense, Germani provided a kind of historical model for understanding this new form of politics in relation to the experience of economic and political development specific to Latin American countries, referred to as modernization...