This is the second or third text I've read from Laclau on political theory, all of which I've really enjoyed. This text is less (far less) explicitly Marxist - or rather, post-Marxist - than something like Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, but he employs the same strategy, blending post-structuralist theory with some Lacanian psychoanalysis to develop a theory of political agency which rejects any form of immanent linkage between social position and political activities. By this, I mean that Laclau argues that there is no "fundamental" motor of history OR political struggle - he rejects things like "class struggle" or "working class" as being irreducible elements of politics, emphasizing instead that nearly any political issue can become an "empty signifier" (a hegemonic signifier) that represents a whole series of different political ambitions. Thus, women's rights, migrant rights, union workers and environmentalists could all be united without contradiction under the banner of a "Green Party," for example.
Laclau's specific theory of populism is interesting and engaging. The meat of the text comes after he finishes disparaging the prevailing theories of populism and begins to develop his own methodology in Chapter 4. For those looking to save some time, chapters 4, 5, and the afterword are by far the most important. In the afterword, he goes after Zizek and Hardt & Negri in a critique that is generally good, although his criticism of Zizek betrays the acerbity of a political-ideological bond gone bad. His critique of Zizek, who perceives the proper political antagonism as something that develops immanently in capitalism, is essentially a critique of Zizek's attempt to blend psycho-analysis with historical materialism. Laclau's argument is basically a rejection of any sort of "determination in the last instance" by anything, which makes his and Zizek's approaches fundamentally incompatible.
I think his points about Zizek's eclecticism and reluctance to advance an actual program of resistance are solid hits, although Laclau occasionally distorts or misreads Zizek's claims. In one instance, Laclau cites Zizek's accusation that Laclau doesn't perceive capitalism as having an internal logic which creates its own contradiction, and instead believes that history consists of contingent historical constellations (233). Laclau then restates this point in his own words (235), which would be unnecessary, except that in this restating, he changes Zizek's words slightly, such that he can re-state his own position in contrast to this. Absurdly, this "clarified" position is precisely that which Zizek's quoted text said it was! This struck me as a bit silly - Laclau and Zizek appear to differ on whether or not capitalism has a logic which immanently produces contradictions. Fair enough; I think Laclau won that argument. Why he felt the need to restate this difference as a misreading of him was a bit puzzling and just seemed bitter. The criticism of Hardt & Negri's "Empire" was, in my opinion, well-founded, as was Laclau's reading of Ranciere.
For those interested in an actual discussion of populisms, Laclau includes some interesting exposition on a few specific populist movements and how they relate to his theory. As someone with a lingering interest in political science, I found this quite intriguing, although I don't think there's enough to justify buying the book solely for its empirical analysis. Laclau's diction swings from didactic and clear, even when expressing complicated concepts, to sometimes being needlessly abstruse. An example:
"The key question is: does this 'inhabiting' do away with the specificity of the particular, such that universality becomes the true medium for an unlimited logical mediation, and particularity the merely apparent field of expressive mediation? Or rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque (non-)representative moment becomes constitutive?"
I generally enjoy the tortured prose of the post-structuralists that Laclau often runs with; however, post-structuralists tend to circle around their ineffable points sufficiently well that one understands what, precisely, they are trying to get at. As such, my real issue was that this sentence received no further clarification - the following line is something like "If we adopt the latter of these two positions...".
In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the text and would recommend it to anyone interested in theories of history, post-Marxism, Gramscian political thought, or a post-structuralist politics.