A 'Purely Political' Account of Agonal Democracy

The only viable aim for contemporary politics, according to Mouffe, is to move beyond universalistic notions of Western liberal democracy towards a radical pluralism—to transform and transcend hegemony itself. For

Mouffe and other theorists of agonal democracy, the crisis in contemporary Western politics is not about a failure to establish new consensus- based national or international orders with which to contest and replace the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, but rather the pressing need to establish the conditions for a continuing interplay with, and productive conflict between, a multiplicity of new partial hegemonies. Far from being detached from empirical considerations, most theorists of agonal democracy pursue a deeply critical normative commitment to the transformation of the manifold practices of conventional politics in various, predominantly Western, social and cultural contexts. While the elimination of conflict in politics is, for such theorists, both impossible and dangerous, they offer a critical alternative through the proposed (re)turn to an ideal of political agon. This (re)turn is articulated as an imagined transfiguration of the constitutive conflict in the political from an antagonistic to an agonistic logic—a reconstitution of the foundational category of the enemy (who must be vanquished/killed) into the adversary (who can be defeated, but remains legitimate) to channel destructive antagonistic conflicts into productive agonistic contests. These critical perspectives offer timely alternative critiques in the context of growing social unease with increasingly antagonistic political discourse and bring to the fore the question of what is or is not part of a ‘healthy’ socio-political democratic order. Like most theorists of agonal democracy, Mouffe has, at the core of her work, a very specific understanding of the political, one that must be explored carefully in order to access and potentially contribute to a broader critical project.

The true ontological character of ‘the political,’3 according to Mouffe, is best understood through the work of political theorist Carl Schmitt. A strong critic of liberal democracy and infamous supporter of Nazi fascism, Schmitt wrote extensively on the nation-state, democratic politics, and the nature of the political. Though Mouffe rejects the overarching trajectory of Schmitt’s work, she critically appropriates his core understanding of the political. Schmitt contends that just as the aesthetic rests upon the antithesis of beautiful and ugly, the economic upon that of profitable and unprofitable, and the moral upon that of good and evil, the concept of the political rests on the fundamental distinction between the friend/enemy antithesis (Schmitt 1996: 33). As Schmitt explains,

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation. It can exist theoretically and practically, without having simultaneously to draw upon all those moral, aesthetic, economic, or other distinctions!...][in fact] the inherently objective nature and autonomy of the political becomes evident by virtue of its being able to treat, distinguish, and comprehend the friend- enemy antithesis independently of other antitheses. (Schmitt 1996: 27)

For Schmitt, then, the ‘ontological’ character of the political is antagonistic in nature. The political is defined by and through the sustained conflict between friend and enemy, culminating in the possibility of open war, understood as the ultimate negation of the enemy (Schmitt 1996: 33). Though few other agonal theorists so explicitly tie their work to that of Schmitt, Mouffe uses his positing of this binary opposition at the core of the political in a manner that remains influential within political theory.

Mouffe is careful to note that she does not take on Schmitt’s work without reservation. Indeed, Mouffe’s selective repurposing of Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy resonates well with critical sociology’s commitments to practices of creative adaptation. Yet despite or perhaps because of her explicitly selective appropriation of Schmitt, Mouffe inherits certain core implications alongside this binary conceptualization of the ontology of the political. Firstly, Schmitt’s conceptualization clearly implies a distinction between the ontological category of ‘the political’ and that of ‘the social.’ This point is made clear in his clarification of the categories of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy.’ Specifically, following a distinction emphasized in The Republic, he notes that

An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship. The enemy is hostis, not inimicus in the broader sense[...]. (Schmitt 1996: 28)

That the public enemy must be distinguished from any other private antagonisms makes clear the fact that: (a) there is a distinction between political and social relations and (b) antagonistic relations are possible in both spheres.

Secondly, Schmitt’s understanding of the political emphasizes its international character. For Schmitt, politics occurs firstly between nations, or, more broadly, between ‘fighting collectivities.’ ‘The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity. As long as a state exists, there will thus always be in the world more than just one state’ (Schmitt 1996: 53). This international character of politics, which is tied to Schmitt’s understanding of the friend/enemy dichotomy, is also reinforced through his understanding of war. While Schmitt clearly states that ‘[w]ar is neither the aim nor the purpose nor even the very content of politics’ (Schmitt 1996: 32), he also contends that the political—specifically understood in terms of the friend/enemy distinction—depends on the ever-present possibility of war. Schmitt goes as far as to contend that ‘[a] world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated, a completely pacified globe, would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics’ (Schmitt 1996: 35). Since the political is only to be understood in terms of oppositional collectivities, the practice of politics, according to Schmitt, occurs almost entirely between states.4

Finally, the third implication that Mouffe inherits from Schmitt, and the only one that she explicitly addresses, is the assumption that any stable political order depends on a homogeneous ‘people’ as demos. For Schmitt, while the external category of the ‘enemy’ is constituted through political will, the ‘friend’ category is only possible in the context of a homogeneous demos. For Schmitt, then, liberal pluralism represents nothing less than a fundamental attack on the stability of political collectivities (Mouffe 1998: 51). Mouffe both acknowledges and explicitly rejects this third implication, choosing to

[...]refuse Schmitt’s dilemma, while acknowledging his argument for the need of some form of ‘homogeneity’ in a democracy. The problem we have to face becomes, then, how to imagine in a different way what Schmitt refers to as ‘homogeneity’ but that — in order to stress the differences with his conception — I propose to call, rather, ‘commonality’; how to envisage a form of commonality strong enough to institute a ‘demos’ but nevertheless compatible with certain forms of pluralism: religious, moral and cultural pluralism, as well as a pluralism of political parties. (Mouffe 1998: 55)

This move allows Mouffe to propose a direction for radical democracy that follows Schmitt’s core conceptualization of the political while rejecting its third implication—that a demos must be homogeneous. However, her work remains subject to the two prior implications: that politics occurs between collectivities (nations or ‘peoples’ for Schmitt), and that ‘the political’ is ontologically distinct from ‘the social.’

By contrast to her Schmitt-inspired account of the political, Mouffe does not attempt to formulate a similar conception of the social. Instead of doing so in terms of some core antithetical distinction upon which it would rely, Mouffe describes the social in terms of sedimented practices that conceal taken-for-granted originary acts of its own political constitution (Mouffe 2005: 17). Whereas the political (in a hegemonic sense) involves ‘the visibility of acts of social institution’ (Mouffe 2005: 17), the social is presented as: (a) the inert consequences of past political struggles and (b) a process through which the outcomes of such struggles are obscured into doxa. This, I contend, is a problematically shallow conception of the social. Agree as one might that every society ‘is the product of a series of practices attempting to establish order in a context of contingency’ (Mouffe 2005: 17) or that the hegemonic character of every social order needs be recognized, it does not necessarily follow that the social is a purely dependent variable simultaneously determined by and obscuring past political struggles.

It is with these conceptions of the political and the social that Mouffe theorizes radical democracy beyond hegemony. Just as the appropriation of Schmitt’s concept of the political lies at the heart of Mouffe’s critique of the mainstream of democratic theory, her call for its transfiguration rests at the centre of her own normative project. In order to move beyond contemporary neoliberal democracy, towards what she describes as a radically pluralistic politics of partial hegemonies, the core antagonistic character of the political must be changed. The enemy of antagonistic politics must be transformed into the adversary of agonistic politics. This proposed transfiguration of the core antithetical distinction rendered by, and constitutive of, the political represents simultaneously one of the most interesting and ambitious elements of Mouffe’s political theory.

Despite the problematic weight that Mouffe grants to the political vis-a-vis the social, I want to argue that both agonal democratic theory broadly and Mouffe’s contributions specifically can make substantial contributions to a critical sociology interested in democracy, inclusivity, and justice. Indeed, perspectives that call into question the character and quality of conflict in democratic political orders can be considered particularly fruitful at a time when ‘in style, as well as substance, the whole idea of political debate in North America is getting polarized—a forum with no middle ground’ (Delacourt 2012). That said, the limitations of a purely political articulation of agonal democracy are considerable. Having reduced the social to a mere sediment reflecting and obscuring past political struggles, Mouffe is left to articulate the notion of an ethos of productive contest in purely political terms. Couched in this way, the pivotal transformation from the enemy to the adversary appears to rest solely on a relatively thin concept of legitimacy. Whereas the challenges stemming from the enemy are considered inherently destructive and dangerous, those from the adversary are seen as legitimate and necessary. The implied shift is from the goal of annihilation to that of overcoming. The enemy, outside of, and dangerous to, the unity of the demos, must be destroyed; the adversary, understood as part of a heterogeneous demos, need only be contested and potentially overcome. To put this another way, while the enemy is a homogenous representation of opposition to the demos, the adversary is more of a liminal figure. The adversary is simultaneously a genuine opponent and a legitimate participant—a notion we shall revisit below.

This simultaneous call to think beyond conventional pluralism and reimagine the very nature of the political in terms of productive and legitimated contest lies at the heart of all critically oriented agonal democratic theory. That said, in purely political terms, the transformative potential of the ideal of political agon appears problematically shallow. While the normative aspirations supporting such a shift in political ethos are clear enough, the processes by which this transfiguration might be possible are not well explored. Certainly, the aim of a more inclusive democratic order presents a degree of incentive in and of itself, but the underlying conditions of possibility remain systematically under-theorized in both Mouffe’s work specifically and agonal theory more broadly.

It is, I contend, in the realm of the social that one can explore these underlying conditions of possibility, and consequently, it is the failure to take the social seriously that hinders the contemporary field of agonal democratic theory. That said, the latter does provide a range of interesting insights into the nature of antagonistic and agonistic tensions within the social body, even if it theorizes them as purely political constructs. The foundational distinctions between productive and destructive conflict, enemies and adversaries, and legitimated opposition as opposed to required ‘consensus’ that agonal theorists draw upon simultaneously offer fresh perspectives on, and resonate with, some of the core questions of critical sociology. A more fulsome account of agonal democracy, one that considers both its explicit political expression and its implicit social foundations, has much to offer critically oriented sociological and political theorists alike.

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