Towards a Sociological Account of Political Agon: (Re)considering the Social Dimensions of Agonal Democracy
Philip Alexander Steiner
Introduction: Antagonistic and Agonal Accounts of Democracy
While the mainstream of democratic theory remains dominated by notions of deliberation, compromise, and consensus (Habermas 1998, 1999; Rawls 1996, 1999; Giddens 2000; Beck 1997), challenges have emerged as part of an alternative paradigm—one that conceptually re-prioritized the political ideal of agon. As a small but prominent subset of Western social and political thought, agonal democratic theory contends that it is neither possible nor desirable to eliminate genuine conflict from the realm of politics (Connolly 1991, 1995; Honig 1993, 2009; Tully 1995; Tully and Brett 2006; Hatab 2002; Mouffe 1993, 1998, 2005). Rejecting
P.A. Steiner (*)
Department of Law and Legal Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada
© The Author(s) 2017
F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,
the mainstream of democratic theories which posit one or another form of social consensus or balance of interests among rational agents as the central ideal of the political, proponents of agonal democracy contend that such visions not only misunderstand the core character of ‘the political’ in both its present and historical forms, but ‘put in jeopardy the [very] future of democratic politics’ (Mouffe 2005: 7). Instead, drawing on the ancient Greek conception of agon—productive conflict between mutually respecting adversaries—agonal democratic theorists advocate an alternative vision of democracy constituted by and through perpetually open contest, and legitimate, though irresolvable, struggle. Yet, while considerable attention has been paid to this interest in agonal democracy (Deveaux 1999; Schaap 2009), existing scholarship has predominantly focused on the ethical, philosophical, and broadly ‘political’ dimensions of such work. Notwithstanding the importance that concepts such as ethos, demos, pluralism, and even society have occupied in these emergent perspectives, the role of the social—a central preoccupation of critical sociology—has largely been ignored, and where it has been considered, the social dimensions of agonal democracy are generally relegated to a sort of sedentary by-product of the political.
Belonging to the broad genre of critical theory, agonal democratic theory shares some of the core conceptual principles underpinning a critical sociological approach. Central among these is the normative aim of overturning existing systems of inequality and domination. At the heart of a call for agonal democracy is a normative commitment to concurrently defend core democratic principles and to expand notions of inclusivity to new, at times quite radical, heights. From a critical sociological perspective, the potential expansion of a democratic imaginary also resonates with the imperative to pursue reflexive scholarship that advances both academic knowledge and matters of public importance. Despite the problematic treatment of the social, the exploration of agonal democracy in political theory also embodies a significant analytic commitment to the study of democracy and provides a number of insights worth exploring. Understood in the broad context of the ongoing expansion of a neoliberal economic logic into the political sphere, engaging with the undertheorized social dimensions of agonal democratic theory offers a unique opportunity to consider an alternative orientation to the neoliberal conception of competition and conflict that dominates contemporary socio-political discourse. By challenging the logic of determination in political theory’s consideration of agonal democracy, according to which the social is essentially determined by the political, and ultimately rethinking the social by expanding the nascent conceptualizations implicitly underpinning this proposed agonal (re)turn, we are able to begin to ask a distinctive, hitherto ignored, and deeply important sociological question, namely what are the underlying social conditions of possibility for a radically emancipatory democratic order premised on the ideal of political agon?
As discussed in the introduction to this collection, the content and character of a critical sociological approach is both multifaceted and subject to debate. For members of the Canadian Network for Critical Sociology, critical sociology today is, in part, characterized by an attempt to question the assumed antithetical nature of conceptual oppositions and productive tensions (between idiographic and nomothetic perspectives, or hermeneutical and structuralist ones, amongst others). This chapter aims to apply this sensibility to another binary, that between the political and the social, in order to simultaneously engage with, challenge, and ‘open up’ a compelling set of questions about the nature and potential of modern democracy—pointing out, and offering alternatives to, certain exclusions and silences enabled by agonal democratic theorists’ dismissal of the social in their normative vision of a new radically inclusive political ethos.
That said, before one can address the question of underlying social conditions of possibility for an agonal democratic ideal, one must consider the theoretical understanding of the social in such perspectives. This task offers its own set of challenges. Despite an overarching orientation towards a democratic ethos that privileges productive contest over antagonistic conflict, and, less productively, a shared tendency to neglect the implicit social dimensions of their work, agonal democratic theorists offer a diverse range of perspectives—an exhaustive summary of which would be impractical. Instead, I propose to engage with this important sub-field through a more detailed consideration of the work of one of its best- known contributors. Specifically, this chapter considers, interrogates, and expands upon the concept of the social as presented in the writings of
Chantal Mouffe, an exemplar of this contemporary agonal (re)turn. Like much of the contemporary scholarship about agonal democracy, Mouffe’s work oscillates between conspicuous silence and problematic reduction- ism in relation to ‘the social.’ Marking a considerable shift from the elusive and complex conception of the social in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy1 (Laclau and Mouffe 2001), her work on agonal democracy describes the social as a collection of sedimentary ‘[...]practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and which are taken for granted[...]’ (Mouffe 2005: 17). The social here is reduced to little more than its most doxic qualities, its multitudes, and complexity summed up in terms of the wool that has been pulled over our collective eyes. Though perhaps more explicit than many of her fellow agonal democratic theorists, Mouffe’s anaemic conceptualization of the social remains representative of a broader tendency to neglect any meaningful consideration of the social when exploring agonal democratic possibilities. At its core, this neglect constitutes both an ideological and methodological gap. For Mouffe, the social is the ‘naturalized’ by-product of the political—of interest only in so far as a potential symptom of a purely political question. Since, according to this view, the social is not a ground of contestation, but the unreflexive result of one, any normative commitments to strong critical theory condemn it to near irrelevance. A critical sociological perspective explicitly rejects these assumptions, asserting instead that not only can the social be a sight of important contestation, challenge, and change, but that it is a conceptual precondition of the political.
With the aim of exploring the social conditions of possibility underpinning a theory of agonal democracy, this chapter offers to rethink the implicit and explicit social dimensions of these overtly political perspectives from a critical sociological perspective—contending that a robust conceptualization of the social is both implied and required for any functional theory of agonal democracy. Conceding that political theory may not offer the ideal tools to articulate, much less elaborate, a more robust conception of the social, this chapter proposes to rethink the social in the context of radical agonistic democracy through the creative adaptation of the classical sociological perspectives of Ferdinand Tonnies and Georg Simmel. Drawing on Tonnies’s seminal, though somewhat neglected, analysis of social solidarity under conditions of both community (Gemeinschaft) and society (Gesellschaft), as well as Simmel’s conceptualization of the ambiguous figure of the stranger, the chapter explores these two classical insights on tension within the social body. I thereby propose a new conceptual vocabulary through which to articulate and explore the critical potential of agonal democratic theory: the transfiguration of antagonistic conflict to agonistic contest, in both its political and social dimensions.
To these ends, the chapter is organized in terms of three interrelated tasks. First, it begins by considering the philosophic and ratiocinative context in which Mouffe outlines her ontological account of ‘the political,’ its significance for a symmetrical account of ‘the social,’ as well as the implications of such an account given contemporary sociological debates on the analytic validity and practical usefulness of the notion of ‘society’ itself. Subsequently, the chapter explores the conceptualization of social in the work of Chantal Mouffe. Here, Mouffe’s work and the manner in which the social is constituted therein are considered both on their own and as emblematic of a broader under-conceptualization of the social across agonal democratic theory writ large. Finally, arguing for the creative adaptability of classical sociological thinking, the chapter draws on selected insights from Simmel and Tonnies to reconsider the social through an alternative conceptual vocabulary, ultimately attempting to deploy a more robust conceptualization in order to expose the social conditions of possibility implied and required in a radical and agonal democratic project that could be one of the normative foundations of critical sociology.