Chantal Mouffe – The Return of the Political

The final chapter of the political science classic, Political Man, was titled “The End of Ideology?” He refers to a conference in 1955 called “The Future of Freedom.” It assembled political thinkers from a diverse range of viewpoints. It included conservatives, socialists and liberals, but there was little political debate. There “was general agreement among the delegates, regardless of political belief, that the traditional issues separating the left and right had declined to comparative insignificance. In effect, all agreed that the increase in state control which had taken place in various countries would not result in a decline in democratic freedom. The socialists no longer advocated socialism; they were as concerned as the conservatives with the danger of an all-powerful state. The ideological issues dividing left and right had been reduced to a little more or a little less government ownership and economic planning. No one seemed to believe that it really made much difference which political party controlled the domestic policies of individual nations.”

Some will feel I have taken Lipset out of context because these were not necessarily his feelings but his summary of a speech from the “arch-conservative economist” Frederich A. Hayek. The conservative economist criticized the assembly “for preparing to bury freedom instead of saving it.” Hayek felt freedom required active debate and competition between ideas. It is enlightening to discover this spirited defense of what Chantal Mouffe describes as “the political” from the right rather than the left. It also reminds the reader that the central theme of The Return of the Political is neither liberal nor conservative. Moreover, it is not an idea relegated to the Post-Cold War era. There is a timelessness within her vision of democracy.

Nonetheless, it does help to recognize Mouffe published this series of essays in 1993. Some of the essays were written in the eighties but they were written during the years of the emergence of what has been called the neo-liberal consensus. This is the period where Gorbachev began to reform the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall fell as the Soviet Union continued to decline and decay before it ultimately disappeared. The failure of Soviet Communism inspired Francis Fukuyama to pen his classic essay, “The End of History?” There is an overlooked parallel between Lipset’s chapter, “The End of Ideology,” mentioned above and Fukyama’s own essay. The central idea remains provocative to this day for his attempt to reclaim the linear account of history from Marxists through his interpretation of Hegel. But buried within Hegelian concepts and bold pronouncements is a more subtle homage to Lipset who was a lasting influence upon his work. Fukuyama writes about the dignity of man and political culture. Still, the end of history was largely a moratorium of what Chantal Mouffe calls the political.

For Chantal Mouffe, “the illusion of consensus and unanimity, as well as the calls for ‘anti-polities’, should be recognized as being fatal for democracy and therefore abandoned. The absence of a political frontier, far from being a sign of political maturity, is the symptom of a void that can endanger democracy.” Radical democracy requires an agnostic pluralism that “must be conceived as a dimension that is inherent to every human society and that determines our very ontological condition.” Like Hayek she values the presence of political debate, “A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests.”

This work is largely a challenge of John Rawls and his Theory of Justice. Rawls’ appeal to justice is an effort to contain political ideas within clearly formulated principles. His approach intends to largely erase political disagreements through an imagined “original position” where the participants are unable to conceive of their future place in society through “a veil of ignorance.” Consequently, Rawls assumes the participants would construct a society based on “fairness” where inequalities were restricted unless they confer a benefit to its least advantaged member.

Rawls wanted to establish a political philosophy based on deontological principles to displace the teleological approach of utilitarianism. But Mouffe rightly recognizes how Rawls’ deontology is limited to the realm of moral philosophy. He erases “the political” because the ends of government are predetermined in his philosophy. She recognizes that “one should not hope for the elimination of disagreement but for its containment within forms that respect the existence of liberal democratic institutions.” Rawls does not leave any room for disagreement in his approach of governance. He allows for free speech but discourages any attempt to put those ideas into practice. As Moufe explains, “Rawls’s ‘well-ordered society’ rests on the elimination of the very idea of the political.”

Nonetheless, there is a danger in the philosophy of Chantal Mouffe. Her “agnostic pluralism” reads as though she does not simply accept a polarization of political ideas but embraces it. She says, “A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests.” But this leaves no space for a genuine philosophy of political moderation. It imagines a moderate agenda emerges from the negotiations from two different political extremes rather than genuine public opinion. The current era of polarization has not brought about a democratic renewal of political institutions, but a manipulation of institutions to exclude opponents and further ideological agendas. Mouffe is right in her assessment that democracy depends upon a principle of inclusion rather than exclusion. But political inclusion does not require a radicalization of political ideologies. Indeed, radical ideologies are susceptible to teleological temptations that abandon democracy so they cannot enact their political policies.

Chantal Mouffe is a democratic theorist for the current era. She recognizes how democracy does not depend on predetermined outcomes. It is a political process. Any attempt to avoid “the political” is a detour around democracy. Still, there is no effort in this work to resolve the conflict between the universalism of liberalism and the relativism of democracy. The two concepts operate on different wavelengths reminiscent of the challenge to resolve relativity and quantum mechanics in modern physics. There is an obvious truth embedded in both concepts, but their marriage exposes a contradiction. The resolution is found in the liberal idea known as “The Rule of Law.” The law embodies the relative nature of democracy but refuses to abandon its commitment to universality. It offers a bridge between liberalism and democracy. But it is not simply the idea of law which merges the two but the notion of the rule of law. This institutional dominance of the law demands a fundamental political equality. This is the key which makes democracy possible. But Mouffe does not agree. She believes when “the political dimension is restricted to the rule of law, there is a risk that the excluded may join fundamentalist movements or become attracted to antiliberal, populist forms of democracy.” Ultimately, this leaves an inherent tension and vulnerability within liberal democracy. But Chantal Mouffe seems to believe democracy thrives on its own vulnerability. Anything less abandons the political.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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