Democratic Politics and Conflict: An Agonistic Approach

Chantal Mouffe
University of Westminster

Volume 9, 2016

How should democratic politics deal with conflict? This is the question that is at the core of my reflection on ‘the political’ and that I will address in this essay. I will begin by delineating the general framework of my approach, whose theoretical bases have been elaborated in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-written with Ernesto Laclau. In this book we argued that the two concepts needed to grasp the nature of the political are ‘antagonism’ and ‘hegemony’. On one side it is necessary to acknowledge the dimension of radical negativity that impedes the full totalization of society and brings to light the ever-present possibility of antagonism. This requires relinquishing the idea of a society beyond division and power, and coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and with the undecidability that pervades every order. This means recognizing the hegemonic nature of every kind of social order and envisaging society as the product of a series of practices whose aim is to establish order in a context of contingency. The practices of articulation through which a given order is created, and the meaning of social institutions fixed therein, are what we call ‘hegemonic practices’. Every order is the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. Things could always have been otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. It is always the expression of a particular configuration of power relations. What is at a given moment accepted as the ‘natural’ order, jointly with the common sense that accompanies it, is the result of sedimented hegemonic practices; it is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity that would be exterior to the practices that brought it into being. Every order is therefore susceptible of being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices that attempt to disarticulate it in order to install another form of hegemony.

In The Return of the Political (1993), The Democratic Paradox (2000) and On the Political (2005) I have developed my reflection on ‘the political’, understood as the antagonistic dimension which is inherent in all human societies. I have proposed to distinguish between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’; ‘the political’ refers to this dimension of antagonism which can take many forms and can emerge in diverse social relations, a dimension that can never be eradicated; ‘politics’ refers to the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions which seek to establish a certain order and to organize human coexistence in conditions which are always potentially conflicting because they are affected by the dimension of ‘the political’.

The denial of ‘the political’ in its antagonistic dimension is, I have argued, what impedes liberal theory from coming to terms with violence and envisaging democratic politics in an adequate way. Indeed the political in its antagonistic dimension cannot be made to disappear by simply denying it and wishing it away, which is the typical liberal gesture; such negation only leads to impotence, an impotence that characterizes liberal thought when confronted with the emergence of antagonisms and forms of violence that, according to its theory, belong to a bygone age when reason had not yet managed to control supposedly archaic passions.

The main problem with liberal rationalism is that it deploys a logic of the social that is based on an essentialist conception of ‘being as presence’, and that it conceives objectivity as being inherent to the things themselves. This is why it cannot apprehend the process of construction of political identities. It cannot recognize that there can only be an identity when it is constructed as difference and that any social objectivity is constituted through acts of power. What it refuses to admit is that any form of social objectivity is ultimately political, and that it must bear the traces of the acts of exclusion that governs its constitution.

The notion of ‘constitutive outside’ can be helpful here to make this argument more explicit. This term has been proposed by Henry Staten (1985) to refer to a number of themes developed by Jacques Derrida through notions like ‘supplement’, ‘trace’ and ‘difference’. Its aim is to highlight the fact that the creation of an identity implies the establishment of a difference, a difference that is often constructed on the basis of a hierarchy: for example, between black and white, man and women, etc. Once we have understood that every identity is relational and that the affirmation of a difference—i.e, the perception of something ‘other’ that constitutes its ‘exterior’—is a precondition for the existence of an identity, then we can begin to envisage how a social relation can become the breeding ground for antagonism.

When dealing with political identities that are always collective identities, we are dealing with the creation of an ‘us’ that can only exist by its demarcation from a ‘them’. This does not mean of course that such a relation is by necessity an antagonistic one. But it means that there is always the possibility of this us/them relation becoming a friend/enemy relation. This happens when the others, who up to now had been considered as simply different, start to be perceived as putting into question our identity and threatening our existence. From that moment on, any form of us/them relation, be it religious, ethnic or economic becomes the locus of an antagonism. What is important here is to acknowledge that the very condition of possibility for the formation of political identities is at the same time the condition of impossibility of a society from which antagonism would have been eliminated. Antagonism is therefore an ever-present possibility.

An Agonistic Model

When the shortcomings of liberal theory are taken into account we can understand why, in order to understand the nature of democratic politics and the challenge to which it is confronted, we need an alternative to the two main approaches in democratic political theory—the aggregative and the deliberative ones—because neither of them acknowledges the antagonistic dimension of the political. The aggregative model sees political actors as being moved by the pursuit of their interests; the deliberative one stresses the role of reason and moral considerations. Both approaches, albeit in a different way, posit the availability of a consensus reached through rational procedures: instrumental rationality in the first case, communicative rationality in the second one. A central problem with both models is that they leave aside the central role played by ‘passions’ in the creation of collective political identities. My claim is that it is not possible to envisage democratic politics without acknowledging affects as the moving force in the field of politics. It is in order to remedy all those deficiencies that I have elaborated an alternative model of democracy that I call ‘agonistic’, which attempts to tackle all the issues that cannot be properly addressed by the two other models because of their rationalist individualistic framework.

In a nutshell, my argument goes as follows. Once we acknowledge the antagonistic dimension of ‘the political’ we begin to realize that one of the main challenges for democratic politics consists in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations. Indeed, the fundamental question for democratic politics is not how to arrive at a rational consensus, a consensus reached without exclusion; this would require the construction of an ‘us’ that would not have a corresponding ‘them’. Yet this is impossible because, as I have argued, the very condition for the constitution of an ‘us’ is the demarcation of a ‘them’. The crucial issue for democratic politics, then, is how to establish this us/them distinction that is constitutive of politics in a way that is compatible with the recognition of pluralism. Conflict in democratic societies cannot and should not be eradicated since the specificity of modern democracy is precisely the recognition and the legitimation of conflict. What democratic politics requires is that the others are not seen as enemies to be destroyed, but as adversaries whose ideas would be fought, even fiercely, but whose right to defend those ideas will never be put into question. To put it in another way, what is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies), but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries). We could say that the aim of democratic politics is to transform potential antagonism into an agonism.

According to the agonistic perspective, the central category of democratic politics is the category of the ‘adversary’, the opponent with whom we share a common allegiance to the democratic principles of ‘liberty and equality for all’ while disagreeing about their interpretation. Adversaries fight against each other because they want their interpretation to become hegemonic, but they do not put into question the right of their opponents to fight for the victory of their position. This confrontation between adversaries is what constitutes the ‘agonistic struggle’ that is the very condition of a vibrant democracy. For the agonistic model the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions or to relegate them to the private sphere in order to establish a rational consensus in the public sphere, it is to ‘tame’ those passions, so to speak, by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives with the aim of mobilizing them toward democratic designs.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress that this notion of the adversary needs to be distinguished sharply from the understanding of that term that we find in liberal discourse. According to the understanding of ‘adversary’ proposed here, and contrary to the liberal view, the presence of antagonism is not eliminated, but ‘sublimated’. In fact, what liberals call an adversary is simply a competitor. They envisage the field of politics as a neutral terrain in which different groups compete to occupy positions of power; their objective is simply to dislodge others in order to occupy their place without putting into question the dominant hegemony and profoundly transforming the relations of power. It is merely a competition among elites. In an agonistic politics, however, the antagonistic dimension is always present since what is at stake is the struggle between opposing hegemonic projects that can never be reconciled rationally, for one of them needs to be defeated. It is a real confrontation, but one that is played out under conditions regulated by a set of democratic procedures accepted by the adversaries.

Liberal theorists are unable to acknowledge not only the primary reality of strife in social life and the impossibility of finding rational, impartial solutions to political issues, but also the integrative role that conflict can play in modern democracy. A well-functioning democracy calls for a confrontation of democratic political positions. If this is missing, there is always the danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identification. Too much emphasis on consensus, together with aversion toward confrontation, leads to apathy and to disaffection with political participation. This is why a democratic society requires a debate about possible alternatives. It must provide political forms of identifications around clearly differentiated democratic positions, or to put it in Niklas Luhman’s terms, there must be a clear ‘splitting of the summit’, a real choice between the policies put forward by the government and those of the opposition. While some form of consensus is no doubt necessary, it must be accompanied by dissent. Consensus is needed in the institutions that are constitutive of democracy and the ethico-political values that should inform political association, but there will always be disagreement concerning the meaning of those values and the way they should be implemented. In a pluralist democracy, such disagreements are not only legitimate but also necessary. They allow for different forms of citizenship identification and are the stuff of democratic politics. When the agonistic dynamics of pluralism is hindered because of a lack of democratic forms of identifications, passions cannot be given a democratic outlet and the ground is laid for various forms of politics articulated around essentialist identities of a nationalist, religious or ethnic type, and for the multiplication of confrontations over non-negotiable moral values, with all the manifestations of violence that such confrontations entail.

Beyond Left and Right

We should therefore be suspicious of the current tendency to celebrate the blurring of the frontiers between left and right and of those who are advocating a politics ‘beyond left and right’. A well functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. Antagonisms can take many forms and it is illusory to believe that they could be eradicated. In order to allow for the possibility of transforming them into agonistic relations it is necessary to provide a political outlet for the expression of conflict within a pluralistic democratic system offering possibilities of identification around democratic political alternatives.

It is in this context that we can grasp the very pernicious consequences of the fashionable thesis put forward by Ulrich Beck (1997) and Anthony Giddens (1994), who both argue that the adversarial model of politics has become obsolete. In their view, the friend/enemy model of politics is characteristic of classical industrial modernity—the ‘first modernity’—but they claim that we now live in a different, ‘second’ modernity; a ‘reflexive’ one in which the emphasis should be put on ‘sub-politics’, on the issues of ‘life and death’.

What is at the basis of this conception of reflexive modernity is the possibility of elimination of the political in its antagonistic dimension and the belief that friend/enemy relations have been eradicated. The claim is that in post-traditional societies we do not find any more collective identities constructed in term of us/them, which means that political frontiers have evaporated and that politics must therefore be ‘reinvented’, to use Beck’s expression. Indeed, Beck proposes that the generalized skepticism and centrality of doubt that are prevalent today preclude the emergence of antagonistic relations. We have entered an era of ambivalence in which nobody can believe any more that they possess the truth (a belief that was precisely where antagonisms stem from). Therefore, there is no more reason for their emergence. Any attempt to organize collective identities in terms of left and right, and to define an adversary, is thereby discredited as ‘archaic’.

Politics in its conflictual dimension is deemed to be something of the past and the type of democracy that is commended is a consensual, completely depoliticized democracy. Nowadays the key terms of political discourse are ‘good governance’ and ‘partisan free democracy’. In my view, it is the incapacity of democratic parties to provide distinctive forms of identifications around possible alternatives that has created the terrain for the current flourishing of right-wing populism. Indeed right-wing populist parties are often the only ones that attempt to mobilize passions and to create collective forms of identifications. Against all those who believe that politics can be reduced to individual motivations, they are well aware that politics always consists in the creation of an ‘us’ versus a ‘them’, and that it implies the creation of collective identities. Hence the powerful appeal of their discourse because it provides collective forms of identification around ‘the people’.

If we add to that the fact that under the banner of ‘modernization’ social-democratic parties have in many countries identified themselves more or less exclusively with the middle-classes and that they have stopped addressing the concerns of the popular sectors—whose demands are considered as ‘archaic’ or ‘retrograde’—we should not be surprised by the growing alienation of all those groups who feel excluded from the effective exercise of citizenship by what they perceive as the ‘establishment elites’. In a context where the dominant discourse proclaims that there is no alternative to the current neo-liberal form of globalization and that we have to accept its diktats, small wonder that more and more people are keen to listen to those who claim that alternatives do exist and that they will give back to the people the power to decide. When democratic politics has lost its capacity to shape the discussion about how we should organize our common life, and when it is limited to securing the necessary conditions for the smooth working of the market, the conditions are ripe for talented demagogues to articulate popular frustration. It is important to realize that, to a great extent, the success of right-wing populist parties comes from the fact that they provide people with some form of hope, with the belief that things could be different. Of course this is an illusory hope founded on false premises and on unacceptable mechanisms of exclusion in which xenophobia usually plays a central role. But when they are the only ones to offer an outlet for political passions, their pretense to offer an alternative is seductive and their appeal is likely to grow. To be able to envisage an adequate response it is necessary to grasp the economic, social and political conditions that explain their emergence. And this supposes a theoretical approach that does not deny the antagonistic dimension of the political.

Without a profound transformation in the way democratic politics is envisaged, and without a serious attempt to address the lack of forms of identifications that would allow for a democratic mobilization of passions, the challenge posed by right wing populist parties will remain and even increase. New political frontiers are being drawn in European politics that carry the danger that the old left/right distinction could soon be replaced by another one much less conducive to a pluralistic democratic debate. It is therefore urgent to abandon the illusions of the consensual model of politics and to create the bases of an agonistic public sphere.

By limiting themselves to calls for reason, moderation, and consensus, democratic parties are showing their lack of understanding of the workings of political logics. What they do not grasp is that democratic politics needs to have a real purchase on people’s desires and fantasies and that, instead of opposing interests to sentiments and reason to passions, it should offer forms of identifications which represent a real challenge to the ones promoted by the right. The aim of democratic politics is the construction of ‘a people’, a collective will, and this is why democracy has a necessarily populist dimension. However, this ‘people’ can be constructed in different ways, and what is at stake in the agonistic struggle is precisely the chain of equivalences through which the collective will is to be established. The specificity of pluralist democracy is that it acknowledges that the people is not one but divided, but that signifies that creating a people requires defining an adversary, indeed, the creation of an ‘us’ always requires the determination of a ‘them’.

An Agonistic Approach to the Recent Protest Movements

Alongside allowing us to grasp the reasons for the growing success of right-wing populism, the agonistic approach can also shed light on recent protest movements in liberal-democratic societies. In On the Political (2005), criticizing the current ‘post-political’ trend, I asserted that we were witnessing a crisis of representation as a consequence of the ‘consensus at the center’ that has come to dominate politics in most European societies. This consensus, which is the result of the unchallenged hegemony of neo-liberalism, deprives democratic citizens of an agonistic debate where they can make their voices heard and choose between real alternatives. Until recently, it was mainly through right-wing populist parties that people were able to vent their anger against such a post-political situation. With the recent protests we are seeing the emergence of other ways, much more estimable, of reacting against the democratic deficit that characterizes our ‘postdemocratic’ societies. But in both cases, what is at stake is a profound dissatisfaction with the current order. If so many people across the whole population, not only the youth, are now taking to the street it is because they have lost faith in traditional parties and they feel that their voice cannot be heard through traditional political channels. As one of the mottos of the protesters claims: “We have a vote, but we do not have a voice”.

Understood as the refusal of the post-political order, current protests can be read as a call for a radicalization of existing democratic institutions, not for their rejection. What they demand are better, more inclusive forms of representation. To satisfy their demand for ‘voice’, existing representative institutions have to be transformed and new ones established so as to create the conditions for an agonistic confrontation in which citizens would be offered real alternatives. Such a confrontation requires the emergence of a genuine left capable of offering an alternative to the social liberal consensus dominant in center-left parties.

The case of Greece can, I think, serve as an illustration of such an approach. In Greece popular mobilizations were led by a coalition of several left-parties (Syriza) whose objective was to come to power through elections and implement a set of radical reforms. Their aim was clearly not the demise of liberal democratic institutions, but their transformation in order to make them a vehicle for the expression of popular demands. The French situation can also provide interesting elements for reflection. It has often been noted that, in contrast with many other European countries, the Occupy movement was almost insignificant in France. Some people have tried to explain this supposed anomaly by the fact that the austerity measures had not been as drastic there as in other countries and that the level of unemployment was not so high. But, then, why did we see several Occupy camps in Germany where the economic conditions are better? To look for an economic explanation is to miss the deep causes that are of a political nature. I am of course not suggesting that the French do not have serious grounds for protest, but among the youth many people seem to believe that significant political channels are still available to express their demands. No doubt, a consensus at the center between center-right and center-left has also been installed in France, but the belief in the power of politics to change things has not been waning as in other European countries. This is due to the existence, on the left of the Socialist party, of several groups with a more radical agenda. The capacity, for instance, of Jean-Luc Melenchon—the candidate of the Front de gauche, a coalition of several left parties—to mobilize the youth in the 2012 presidential elections was really remarkable. Many young people who in other countries would have been found in Occupy camps, or remained skeptical about political involvement, felt that there was place for their demands in the program of the Front de Gauche and participated with great enthusiasm in Melenchon’s campaign for a ‘citizen revolution’.

The problem, of course, is not limited to the youth, for there are also important popular sectors whose interests are being ignored by the traditional democratic parties. In previous writings scrutinizing the growth of right-wing populist parties, I argued that their success was in great part due to the fact that they were often the only ones addressing the concerns of working-class people. In their move towards the Center, Socialist parties have abandoned those people whose demands they see as ‘archaic’ and ‘retrograde’ and they now limit themselves to representing the interests of the middle classes. This is, of course, what explains the success of Marine Le Pen in France and the fact that many French workers now vote for the Front National.

Melenchon and Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, are often accused of being ‘populist’, but far from being a ground for critique this should be seen as a virtue. The aim of a left popular movement should be to mobilize passions towards the construction of a ‘people’ so as to bring about a progressive ‘collective will’. A ‘people’ can of course be constructed in different ways and some of them are incompatible with a left-wing project. It all depends on how the adversary is defined. Whereas for right-wing populism the adversary is identified with the immigrants or the Muslims, the adversary for a left-wing populist movement should be constituted by the configuration of forces that sustain neo-liberal hegemony.

Democracy or Representation?

At the center of the dispute about how to interpret the recent protests, lies a very old discussion about the nature of democracy and the role of representation. Two positions confront each other; one sees representative democracy as an oxymoron and argues that a ‘real’ democracy needs to be a direct or even a ‘presentist’ one; another claims that far from being in contradiction to democracy representation is one of its very conditions. This is an issue that I have examined in previous works, and it might be useful to revisit some of the arguments of this discussion to clarify what is at stake in the current dispute.

In The Democratic Paradox (2000) I argue that Western liberal democracy is the articulation of two traditions: liberalism with its emphasis on liberty and pluralism and democracy postulating equality and popular sovereignty. While both of them have important strengths, they are ultimately irreconcilable and the history of liberal democracy has been driven by the tension between the claims for liberty and those for equality. What has happened under neo-liberal hegemony is that the liberal component has become so dominant that the democratic values have been eviscerated. Several previous democratic advances have been dismantled and under the motto of ‘modernization’ core democratic values have been dismissed as ‘archaic’. Without underestimating the democratic shortcomings of social democracy, it is clear that the situation has drastically worsened under neo-liberal hegemony. The democratic value of equality has been set aside, conveniently replaced by ‘choice’ in the discourse of the ‘third way’ and its social-liberal avatars. It is really regrettable that so many parties on the center-left are ready to accommodate themselves to what has rightly been called a ‘post-democratic’ condition.

There are alternatives, however, and we should not accept the current situation as the final way of articulating liberalism and democracy. The experience of progressive governments in South America in the last decade proves that it is possible to challenge neo-liberalism and to re-establish the priority of democratic values without relinquishing liberal representative institutions. It also shows that the state, far from being an obstacle to democratic advances, can in fact be an important vehicle for fostering popular demands.

The recent ‘citizen awakening’ in Europe and the USA is very encouraging because it breaks with the post-political consensus. A taboo has been broken and many voices are now being heard, contesting the inequalities existing in our societies. To effectively challenge neo-liberal hegemony it is crucial, though, that all the energies that have erupted are not diverted towards wrong alleys. I am afraid that this is what could happen if representative institutions become the main target of the protests. There is no denying that representative institutions are in crisis in their current liberal democratic form, but I do not believe that the solution resides in the establishment of a ‘non-representative’ democracy or that extra-parliamentary struggles are the only vehicle for making democratic advances. Such views are popular because they chime with the idea, fashionable among sectors of the left, that the multitude could organize itself avoiding taking power and becoming state. To find such an anti-political approach among activists involved in the various movements of the outraged is worrying because it prevents designing an adequate strategy for their struggle. When representation is seen as the problem the aim cannot be to engage with current institutions to make them more representative and more accountable, but to discard them entirely. The objective of the movements will be visualized in terms of an ‘exodus’ from given forms of democracy, on the ground that attempting to transform existing institutions is vain and that representative democracy has to be relinquished.

Many among those who reject representation identify representative democracy with its current ‘post-democratic’ form and with the actual workings of the parliamentary system. They do not see that the problem concerns the way representative institutions function at the moment and the fact that so many voices are excluded from representation. What needs to be challenged is the lack of alternatives offered to the citizens, not the very idea of representation. A pluralist democratic society cannot exist without representation. To begin with, as the anti-essentialist approach has made clear identities are never already given, but are always produced through discursive construction; this process of construction is a process of representation. It is through representation that collective political subjects are created and they do not exist beforehand. Every assertion of a political identity is thereby interior, no exterior to the process of representation. Secondly, in a democratic society where pluralism is not envisaged in the harmonious anti-political form, and where the ever-present possibility of antagonism is taken into account, representative institutions (by giving form to the division of society) play a crucial role in allowing for the institutionalization of this conflictual dimension. However, such a role can only be fulfilled through the availability of an agonistic confrontation. What constitutes the central problem with our current post-political model is the absence of agonistic confrontation, and this is not going to be remedied through ‘horizontalist’ practices.

This is not to say that those practices do not have a role to play in an agonistic democracy. I am convinced that the variety of extra-parliamentary struggles and the multiple forms of activism are valuable, not only to raise consciousness and to bring to the fore issues that are neglected, but also to provide a realm for the cultivation of different social relations. What I contend is that those practices cannot provide a substitute for representative institutions, and that it is necessary to establish a synergy between them and other more institutional forms of struggle. If the protest movements refuse to establish alliances with traditional channels, deemed as intrinsically impervious to democratic transformation, their radical potential will be lost. Amazingly some activists are still celebrating the ‘horizontalist’ experiences of Argentina in 2001, presenting them as the model to follow, without acknowledging the limits of such a strategy. They do not seem to realize that the democratic advances that have taken place there, as well as in other South American countries in the last ten years, have been made possible thanks to an articulation of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary struggles. Those are the experiences from which the European left can learn, and it is high time to stop romanticizing ‘spontaneism’ and ‘horizontalism’. The call for democracy that is now being voiced in a variety of quarters can only produce lasting effects if the activists involved in those movements, instead of implementing a strategy of withdrawal, accept becoming part of a progressive ‘collective will’ engaged in a ‘war of position’ to radicalize democratic institutions and to establish a new hegemony.

What is needed in order to fight against right wing populism is the formation of a left-wing populism, a populism in which the adversary is not constructed in a xenophobic (for example, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim) way, but as a collective will aiming at an alternative to neo-liberal globalization whose adversary is constituted by the forces behind this project, for instance, the multinationals, the financial corporations. It is clear that in the current conditions such a project cannot be conceived in national terms alone, and that it needs to be envisaged at a European level. So the thought that I want to leave with you is that if our aim is to foster democracy in tomorrow’s Europe, what we should do is contribute to the formation of a left-wing European populist movement that will challenge the current post-political neo-liberal consensus shared by center-right and center-left parties.


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