What is at stake in what I call the ‘agonistic’ struggle, which I see as the core of a vibrant democracy, is the very configuration of power relations around which. The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, on the other hand, arrived at Mouffe called this kind of respectful conflict “agonistic pluralism” in contrast to both. Agonistic. Pluralism? / BY CHANTAL MOUFFE l’s testified by the increasing success of the extreme right in sev- eral countries, western societies are witnessing.
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Courtesy of the artist. What is the best way to envisage democratic politics?
Agonism | philosophy |
I will begin by presenting the main principles of the theoretical framework that informs my reflection. We find this distinction between the political and politics in the other agonistic theories, though not always with the same signification. There are those for whom the political refers to a space of liberty and mmouffe action, while others view it as a site of conflict and antagonism. It is from this second perspective that my work proceeds, and I will demonstrate how it is on this point that the fundamental divergence between the different agonistic theories rests.
One of the principal theses that I have defended in my work is that properly political questions always involve decisions which require a choice between alternatives that are undecidable from a strictly rational point of view.
This is something the liberal theory cannot admit due to the inadequate way it envisages pluralism.
The liberal theory recognises that we live in a world where a multiplicity of perspectives and values coexist and, for reasons it believes to be empirical, accepts that it is impossible for each of us to adopt them all. But it imagines that these perspectives and values, brought moufef, constitute a harmonious and non-conflictual ensemble. I myself argue that only by taking account of the political in its dimension of antagonism can one grasp the challenge mouff politics must face.
Public life will never be agonishic to dispense with antagonism for it concerns public action and the formation of collective identities. Verso, and On the Political London: Routledge,pluralist democracy is characterised by the introduction of a distinction between the categories of enemy and adversary.
His ideas will be fought with vigour but his right to defend them will never agobistic questioned. The category of enemy does not disappear, however, for it remains pertinent with regard to those who, by questioning the very principles of pluralist democracy, cannot form part of the agonistic space.
Of course, democracy cannot survive without certain forms of consensus, relating to adherence to the ethico-political values that constitute its principles of legitimacy, and to the institutions in which these are inscribed. But it must also enable the expression of conflict, which requires that citizens genuinely have the possibility of choosing between real alternatives. It is necessary at this point to introduce the category of hegemony, which will enable us to identify the nature of the agonistic struggle.
To understand the political as the ever present possibility of antagonism, the absence of a final foundation and the undecidability that pervades every order must be acknowledged. It is precisely to this that the category of hegemony refers, and it indicates that every society is the product of practices that seek to institute an order in a context of contingency. Every social order is therefore hegemonic in nature, and its origin political. The social is thus constituted by sedimented hegemonic practices, that is, practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and that appear to proceed from a natural order.
This perspective reveals that every order results from the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. Things could always have been different and every order is established through the exclusion of other possibilities.
What is at stake in the agonistic struggle is the very configuration of the power relations that structure a social order and the type of hegemony they construct. It is a confrontation between opposing hegemonic projects that can never be reconciled rationally. The antagonistic dimension is therefore always present but it is enacted by means of a confrontation, the procedures for which are accepted by the adversaries. The agonistic model that I propose acknowledges the contingent character of the hegemonic articulations that determine the specific configuration of a society at a given moment; as pragmatic and contingent constructions, they can always be disarticulated and transformed by the agonistic struggle.
Unlike the liberal models, such an agonistic perspective takes account of the fact that every social order is politically instituted and that the ground on which hegemonic interventions occur is never neutral for always the product of previous hegemonic practices.
Far from envisaging the public sphere, as for example Habermas does, as fertile ground in the search for consensus, my agonistic approach conceives it as the battlefield on which hegemonic projects confront one another, with no possibility whatsoever of a final reconciliation. But I would now like to examine the differences that exist between my approach and the one found within a certain number of conceptions that also adopt an agonistic perspective.
I will begin with the case of Hannah Arendt. Arendt is often considered a representative of agonism, and her references to the Greek Agon can justify such a reading. But the conception of agonism that can be derived from her work is very different to the one I defend.
Chantal Mouffe: Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics
By this I mean that, although she insists a good deal on human plurality and conceives politics as dealing with the community and with reciprocity between different beings, she never recognises that this plurality is at the origin of antagonistic conflicts. According to Arendt, to think politically consists in developing the ability to see things from a multiplicity of perspectives.
Despite moufte differences in their respective approaches, I therefore believe that Arendt, like Habermas, agonistiv the public sphere as a place where consensus can be established. Obviously, in her case, this consensus will be the result of an exchange of voices and opinions in the Greek sense of doxarather than the rational Diskurs xgonistic in Habermas.
The Mouff of Chicago Press,while agobistic Habermas consensus emerges through what Kant agojistic disputieren, an exchange of arguments bound by logical rules, for Arendt it is a matter of streiten, where agreement is produced by persuasion and not based on irrefutable proofs.
Cornell University Press,Honig criticises liberal conceptions for being too consensual and she advances the emancipatory potential of political contestation, which enables established practices to be questioned. Moudfe acknowledging that Arendt never identified with feminism, Honig asserts that her agonistic politics of performativity is crucial for a feminist politics because it enables feminism to be envisaged as a site nouffe contestation over the meaning, practice and politics of gender and sexuality.
The idea of an identity suitable for women and that would serve as a starting point for a feminist politics is replaced by a multiplicity of identities constantly produced in an agonistic space, opening the way for feminist emancipation. We can observe that the agonistic struggle is, according to Honig, reduced to the moment of contestation.
It is important for her to guarantee the expression of plurality and to prevent the closure of the questioning process. However, I myself consider that this is but one of the dimensions of the agonistic struggle, which cannot be limited to contestation.
The second moment, involving the construction of new hegemonic articulations, is fundamental in politics. I have a agonlstic problem with the conception of William Connolly, another theorist of agonism. Connolly is influenced by Nietzsche rather than Arendt, and he has endeavoured to render his Nietzschian conception of the Agon compatible with democratic politics.
In his book Pluralism Durham: Duke University Press, he argues for a radicalisation of democracy through the development of a new democratic ethos among citizens. He conceives this ethos as one of permanent engagement in agonistic contestation that would make all attempts to bring closure to debate impossible.
Agonistic respect constitutes for him the cardinal virtue of the type of pluralism he advocates and he considers it the most important political virtue in the pluralist world we live in today.
Of course, I agree with Connolly when he insists on the role respect must play between adversaries engaged in an agonistic struggle. But I believe it is necessary to question the limits of this agonistic respect. Can all antagonisms be transformed into agonism? In other words, must all positions be considered legitimate and must they be granted a place inside the agonistic public sphere?
Or must certain claims be excluded because they undermine the conflictual consensus that constitutes the symbolic framework in which opponents recognise themselves as legitimate adversaries? Any perspective that evades this moment renders itself incapable of transforming the structure of power relations and of instituting a new hegemony. I certainly do not intend to deny the importance of a democratic ethos but I think it would be a mistake to reduce democratic politics to the promotion of an ethics of agonistic kouffe.
Yet this appears to be what Connolly proposes and, rather than a new conception of democratic politics, what we find in his work is a new form of pluralist ethics. It undoubtedly has its merits but is not sufficient to envisage the nature of a hegemonic democratic politics and the limits the latter must impose on pluralism. The fundamental difference between my conception of agonism and those that I have just examined resides in the absence in the cases of Arendt, Honig and Connolly of the two dimensions central to my approach and which I believe are indispensable to think the political: The principal objective of these authors is to prevent the closure of debate and to give free rein to the expression of plurality.
However, it is not enough to disturb the dominant procedures and disrupt existing arrangements to radicalise democracy. Once we accept that antagonism can never be definitively eliminated and that every order is hegemonic in nature, we cannot avoid the central question in politics: This requires the moment of decision to be confronted and necessarily implies a form of closure. It is the price to pay for acting politically.
To finish, I would like to suggest that this inability to account for the nature of the political decision in the authors I have just examined is linked to the way they conceive the political as common action and envisage pluralism on the mode of the valorisation of multiplicity. This is what leads them to elude the constitutive role of conflict and antagonism. On the contrary, the other vision of the political, the one from which my work proceeds, recognises the constitutive character of social division and the impossibility of a final reconciliation.
The thesis I defend is that only once the ineradicable character of division and antagonism is recognised does it become possible to think in a properly political manner. Her latest work is On the Political published by Routledge in