Robin Celikates | Assembling: Beyond Hegemony?

By Robin Celikates

The time of the so-called movements of the squares seems to be long gone. What in retrospect looks like a series of fleeting moments of collective enthusiasm and radical hope associated with Tahrir Square, Gezi Park, Hong Kong Central, Zuccotti Park, and other places seems to have given way to an authoritarian backlash that fuses government repression ‘from the top’ with the mobilization of legitimating reactionary affects ‘from below’. Accordingly, the ‘theory of assembly’ Judith Butler’s book proposes – as the self-identification as ‘notes’ in the title suggests: in a provisional and exploratory form – could be taken to be anchored in the bygone political conjuncture in which it was written and to which it responded in a way that calls into question its contemporary significance. In the short reflections that follow I’d like to suggest that such a reaction would not only overgeneralize particular trajectories that already in themselves are more complicated than the above narrative suggests; more importantly, it would conceal the significant theoretical and political implications of Butler’s analysis for the question of how our current conjuncture should be interpreted and what form emancipatory political struggles should take in response to it.

At the core of Butler’s Notes is, of course, a theory of public assembly and of how the constitutively embodied and plural practice of assembling in public gives rise to expressions of the popular will outside of the formal institutions of the political system, calling into question the claim of that system to be democratic, indeed to exhaust the meaning of what democracy is and could be under current conditions. In reinterpreting the eminently political logic of ‘acting in concert’ – to use the term Butler takes from Arendt who borrowed it from Burke – in terms of ‘concerted bodily action’ (48) that enacts a claim ‘through bodily movement, assembly, action, and resistance’ (49), Butler highlights how public space is reclaimed against authoritarian and privatizing strategies of depoliticization. That bodies, supporting infrastructures and the differential distribution of precariousness and exposure to violence play such a prominent role in her account guards it against Arendt’s tendency to romanticize public appearance and uncouple it from social power relations. In the context of our discussion, I’d like to focus on two aspects of Butler’s rich analysis and the tension in which they seem to me to stand as this gives rise to questions that I take to be hers just as much as they are ours today.

While I find Butler’s argument that in the very act of assembling a representative claim is being made and a popular will articulated entirely convincing, I wonder whether the best or the only way to spell out this claim and articulation is in the vocabulary of ‘the people’, ‘the people’s will’, and ‘popular sovereignty’. Furthermore, given some of the fundamental commitments and guiding examples of her analysis, I wonder what the political and theoretical limits might be of conceptualizing the practice of making claims that contest the dominant narrative about who the people is as a ‘bid for hegemony’ (4) or as taking part in a ‘hegemonic struggle’ (167) in which ‘the “we”, [if it] is to work politically, has to be restricted to those who attempt to achieve and exercise hegemonic power through its invocation’ (168). The commitments that seem to me to stand in tension with this characterization are her invocation of the need for reflexivity – or ‘reflexive self-making’ (171) – and her demand, or explication, that ‘democratic politics has to be concerned with who counts as “the people,” how the demarcation is enacted that brings to the fore who “the people” are and that consigns to the background, to the margin, or to oblivion those people who do not count as “the people”’ (5). Indeed, we can see these very commitments centrally at work in the movements of the squares Butler’s theorizing is attuned to, as they recognized and tried to mirror them in their practice of assembling and in their discourse which not only rejected the established politics of ‘us vs. them’ – prominently in the refusal of hegemonic discourses of othering (‘ötekileştirme’) in Gezi Park – but informed a radical expansion of the repertoire of contestation and of organization in a prefigurative direction.[1]

Both Butler’s commitments and the political specificity of her guiding examples suggest that she (on my reading together with Etienne Balibar[2] and Eric Fassin[3]) would come down on a different side than Laclau and Mouffe in the debate on ‘left populism’ and the question of whether, and, if so, how, emancipatory movements participate in a struggle for hegemony that necessarily takes a populist form.[4] One, at first sight maybe simplistic way, of posing the question is to ask what we make of the fact that officially anti-essentialist invocations of the ‘real people’ (and presumably that means: ones that are attentive to the exclusions and marginalizations produced by these invocations) in reality all too often succumb to, and indeed contribute to the escalation of, an essentializing and exclusionary dynamic. Actually existing ‘left populism’ offers plenty of examples, from the flag-waving ‘La France Insoumise’ via the Italian anti-immigration Cinque Stelle to the German movement ‘Aufstehen’ whose proponents – presumably leftist politicians as Sarah Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, but also their intellectual sympathizers such as Wolfgang Streeck – do not shy away from mimicking and thereby endorsing right-wing rhetoric. In all these cases, the populist recoding of presumably leftist political orientations drives out whatever emancipatory potential these movements might have been able to claim in the past. The deeper reason for this dynamic can be seen in what Nicholas de Genova characterizes as the deep nationalist logic of populist appeals to the ‘real people’ in an ‘us vs. them’ register: ‘all manifestations of populism serve to recapture the insurgent energies of emancipatory struggles and entrap the “common folk” within the borders of the Nation, reinscribing a democratic political enclosure whereby human life is subordinated to and subjected by the nationalist metaphysics of state power.’[5]

In a more theoretical vein the question could then be formulated as follows: If there is a political need to acknowledge and institutionalize as far as possible ‘the temporal and open-ended character of “the people”’ and the necessity ‘to incorporate a check on the exclusionary logic by which any designation proceeds’ (164) within the forms of organization and self-understanding of democratic struggles and movements and if these commitments can therefore not just be commitments the theorist holds but does not expect to be upheld in practice, what are the consequences for thinking about emancipatory politics in the register of hegemony, populism, and hegemonic populism? In other words: Do struggles for emancipation ‘from the left’ have the same form and follow the same logic as struggles for hegemony ‘from the right’ which are evidently not concerned with, and indeed embrace the task of, constructing an exclusionary and homogeneous collective subject that can serve as the firm ground of affective identification and mobilization? Is the need for internal reflexivity or other ways of keeping the deep plurality and heterogeneity of political subject positions open more than a strategic disadvantage for the left?

If Butler is right that any ‘invocation of the people becomes – and must become [and remain?] – contestable at the very moment that it appears’ (172), the question is thus what follows from this for the logic of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic or other-than-hegemonic struggles. Butler’s Notes themselves suggest an alternative route to contestation and ‘claims to the political’, one that starts from the margins of the demos, the refugee, the migrant, the exile and those who come after them, from ‘the discounted, the ineligible’ (51), ‘the stateless, the occupied, and the disenfranchised’ (80), one that questions established notions of the people and its boundaries but might not end up embracing a positive vision of ‘We the people’. Does their struggle follow the same logic of hegemonic claim-making? Surely, there are limits to any abstract discussion of this question, but let me just mention some reasons for doubting that the answer could be a simple ‘yes’. In a settler-colonial context struggles for self-determination by indigenous and occupied people and peoples – and here we can note the missing ‘s’ in Butler’s reference to ‘indigenous people struggling for sovereignty’ (161) – clash with the state’s claim to exclusive territorial sovereignty.[6] In a world in which nation-states claim a unilateral right to control their borders migrant and refugee movements challenge a whole way of life and political imaginary that entirely abstracts from its own structural implication in the production of the conditions that violate migrants’ ‘right to stay’ as well as their ‘right to escape’.[7] These struggles seem to be misidentified both in their content and in their form when they are interpreted as contestatory responses to the question of ‘who the people really are’. The ‘We’ in ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us’ and ‘We are here because you were/are there’ is not, and does not aspire to be, the same as the ‘We’ in ‘We, the People’. It therefore seems that not all these struggles can equally well, or at all, be articulated in the language of popular sovereignty, of sovereignty and of the people in the singular. At least, they seem to require a radical revision, pluralization and deterritorialization of the demos, of peoplehood and of its internal and external borders – all in ways that deeply unsettle the existing terms of the struggle for hegemony rather than making a move within its narrowly national-populist confines, thus ‘confounding the distinction between inside and outside’ (78). The question is which practices and forms of organization can accommodate rather than repress and conceal this confounding logic of the political which seems to push beyond hegemony.


[1] See, e.g., Robin Celikates, ‘Learning from the Streets: Civil Disobedience in Theory and Practice’ in: Peter Weibel (ed.), Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 65-72.

[2] See, e.g.,

[3] See Eric Fassin, Populisme: le grand ressentiment (Paris: Textuel, 2017).

[4] See also the debate in this series,

[5] Nicholas de Genova, ‘Rebordering “the People”: Notes on Theorizing Populism’ South Atlantic Quarterly  117 (2018), 2, 368.

[6] See, e.g., Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

[7] See, e.g., Robin Celikates, ‘Constituent Power Beyond Exceptionalism: Irregular Migration, Disobedience, and (Re-)Constitution,’ Journal of International Political Theory, 15 (2019): 1, 67-81; Sandro Mezzadra, Diritto di fuga (Verona: Ombre corte, 2006).