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Ivan Gololobov (University of Essex, UK)

Construction of Social Antagonism as the Way to Suppress Violence


The thesis declared in the title of this research obviously invokes many questions. Social antagonism is traditionally regarded as rather a reason of social violence. However, some theoretical reflections on the notion of antagonism allow us to question its automatic equation with social tensions. Moreover, as it will be demonstrated in this work, these reflections allow us to argue for the positive and constructive role of social antagonism, seen as the condition where social violence can be reduced to their minimum.


1. The notion of (constructive) antagonism comes from the post-Marxist theoretical tradition and explicitly articulated in the works of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. They reject the Kantian realoposition  (Reapugnanz) (A - B) and suggest that we should account antagonism as first of all, logical contradiction (A – not A).

2. The accent on the logical and conceptual, rather than ‘real’ character of antagonism makes it to be further conceptualised in frames of discourse theory since it is this theoretical tradition which emphatically addresses the issues of meaning-production. Moreover as it is exactly this theory which gave birth to the aforementioned understanding of social antagonism.

3. In very general terms, discourse is seen as the field of distinguishing objects. It is discourse which makes possible to recognise something as a particular specific entity and which, strictly speaking, forms objects out of the ‘raw’ material of surrounding reality.  

4. The process of bringing objects into being can be regarded as a process of identification. An object receives its identity through its differentiation from the other objects (Saussurean logic of difference, the example with chess).

5. But, logic of difference cannot function on its own. A particular system of differences is not total. It has it limits (we can substitute a king by a cup of coffee in frames of a ‘chess game’ which is a system that has strict limits in time and space). And since we know that no system can exist on its own (Lotman; Prigogine and Stengers) we have to assume that a particular system is limited by  the presence of the other systems. This makes the internal heterogeneity of system to form homogeny in the presence of the other systematic organisations. This makes necessary to assume that a particular logic of difference necessarily implies the presence of a certain equivalence fixing particular domain of differentiation as a whole.

6. The two systems, different in their areas of equivalences set to the elements, are not isolated. They coexist in a constant interaction. This interaction unavoidably leads to the weakening of systematic organisation and following dissolution of the difference between one system and another (Lotman: conditionally adequate translation and proliferation of irregular zone; physics: the law of constant energy loss).

7.  The dissolution of differences results in the loss of a system’ specificity. The logic of equivalence ceases to function and invokes disorganisation of the internal system of differences. This leads to the dissolution of the system as such.

8. This results in the explosion (Lotman; Prigogine and Stengers) where the disorganised elements look for a new way to organise their relations with each other. In social science the moment of explosion corresponds refers to revolutions, uprisings, social unrest.

9. Needless to say that, in fact, it is the times of this gap (Tynyanov, Laclau) of revolutions, uprisings and social unrest when we witness a raise of the most ugly violence in the society. In this time where people loose their identities violence ceases to be a crime since no order to be violated is constructed yet.

10. To suppress violence, to make it a crime again, means to reconstruct the social order. To bring systematicity back to the disintegrated social space and here the concept of antagonism comes into play.

10. Construction of social antagonism, articulation of the Enemy and drawing a clear discursive frontiers is not an entirely  negative process of creating an enmity, but a necessary prerequisite for any social order to exist.  By articulating the Enemy we cerate the area where disintegrated elements can find their equivalence in their opposition to the antagonist. This becomes the first step towards the construction of social order (whatever it is) opening the possibility to ‘criminalise’ violence.


Antagonism is not static and each dual system organisation unavoidably overcomes itself. However, the gap between the system which has no longer exists and the one which is not created yet, the moment of explosion left on its own, an attempt to live without the enemy does not lead us to the establishment of a paradise on Earth. On the contrary, it generates numerous enemies and it makes them where they were not before. The explosion of social enmity on the post-Soviet space after the end of the Cold War is an explicit example of this process.

Absolute antagonism solving all problems of systematic organisation is, of course, not possible. However its construction, representation of the Other, drawing a discursive frontier and articulation of dual separation of discursive field is a necessary foundation for minimising the amount of uncontrolled social violence. Especially in the societies which stayed for too long in the state of ‘explosive euphoria’. And now it appears possible to suggest a slogan which already does not seem to be so paradoxical in the project of combating social violence: Towards a new antagonism!


Key references

Saussure, F. de. Course in General Linguistics. London: Duckworth, 1983.

Laclau, E. & Mouffe, C. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985.

Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. Order out of Chaos. Men’s New Dialogue with Nature, London: Fontana, 1985.

Lotman, Y. Semiosphera, Spb: Iskusstvo – Spb, 2002.