Sociation and Political Agon—An Alternative View

As noted at the start of this chapter, a critical sociological perspective on agonal democracy not only challenges the prevalent logic of determination in political theory, under which the social is ostensibly determined by the political, but also proposes a more robust conceptualization of the social premised on a partial reversal of that logic. It suggests that in order to fully consider something within the political, one must explore its underlying social conditions of possibility. Through the creative adaptation of certain classic sociological insights, this proposed account begins to take shape.

First, drawing on Tonnies, we can say that the types of social relations and social solidarity possible in a given context are preconditioned by broader forms of social organization and structures. While not necessarily embracing Tonnies’s perspective on rural versus urban sociation, we can also characterize the contemporary Western social context as resembling more closely conditions of Gesellschaft than Gemeinschaft. Again, without completely accepting Tonnies’s account of the latter, we can also concede that those conditions do not inherently privilege close-knit relations between all members in the same way that smaller, less industrialized, forms of community might do. Framed by a characterization of the core dichotomy within the social as being between the familiar and the strange (which, for Tonnies, means unfamiliar), such an account can position us to consider the ways in which implicit distinctions between familiarity and unfamiliarity under certain modes of social organization might underpin more explicit political distinctions between friends, enemies, and adversaries.

Turning to the work done by Simmel, we can augment this account of the social with a space for the possibility and importance of productive conflict within a functioning social whole. Whereas Tonnies views social conflict as antithetical to sociation, Simmel provides a conceptualization of the social that views many forms of conflict as not only pervasive in a functional society but as constructive and necessary. Furthermore, Simmel’s notion of the stranger—concurrently familiar and unfamiliar— occupies a position in the social potentially parallel to that of Mouffe’s proposed adversary within the political. As explored earlier, the stranger and the adversary share certain similarities in both form and content— characterized in terms of a dialectic tension between various forms of proximity and distance. In this way, one can posit that the political distinctions between friends, enemies, and adversaries might very well rest on the underlying societal orientation to relations between the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the strange.

Taking up this idea and deploying the contemporary reimagining of the stranger in terms of social relations of strangership, the political relations posited in accounts of agonal democracy and their underlying social conditions of possibility can be considered in terms that parallel the basic elements necessary for strangership: copresence, mutual agreement on relative distance, as well as social and symbolic mobility. Approaching Mouffe’s proposed category of the political adversary—who is concurrently legitimate, and an object of genuine opposition—from this perspective, we can consider what forms of the social relation of strang- ership might support, or render possible, the political relations ascribed between adversaries and which might obstruct or prevent such relations from existing. Much in the way that Horgan suggests that the social relations of strangership can be ‘tethered to’ encounters with social inequality (Horgan 2012: 618) to further explore the ways in which strangership and inequality might intersect, I would contend that relations of strang- ership can be tethered to the political conception of the adversary in order to explore the underlying social dimensions of this explicitly political relation.

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