Agonism in Democratic Theory


Agonism is a key component in the philosophy of radical democracy. Chantal Mouffe explains this concept in her work Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. Its publication in 2013 developed her theory of Agonism beyond her earlier works such as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, The Return of the Political, The Democratic Paradox, and On the Political. The discussion below is part of an ongoing effort to examine the work of Chantal Mouffe through a series of reflections on her work.

Politics and the Political

For Chantal Mouffe philosophy does not begin with politics, but the political. She is shockingly influenced by the work of Carl Schmitt, a far right intellectual associated with the Nazi regime of Germany. And yet, maybe it is a mistake to describe Schmitt as an influence. His ideas are more like a challenge that Mouffe wants to overcome. Still, unlike most theorists of the left, the ideas of Schmitt do not repulse Mouffe. There is a strange attraction to his notion of the political. Indeed, there is a radicalism in the thought of Schmitt in which Mouffe recognizes a kindred spirit.

There are plenty of moments where Mouffe has challenged intellectuals of the left like Rawls and Habermas with an aggression absent in her critique of Schmitt. Maybe it is because Schmitt is already so ostracized as an intellectual there is no need to make unnecessary attacks. Instead, she works to rebuild the credibility of his ideas so she can incorporate aspects of them into her ideas. But it is more than this. There is a resentment of the conciliatory approach found in deliberative democracy. Mouffe sneers at the notion of consensus. She reinterprets consensus and agreement as the tools of hegemony used to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition.

Pluralism is Fundamental to Democracy

Pluralism becomes more than a characteristic of democracy for Mouffe. It rises to a fundamental principle. The role of a political opposition in a democracy is widely appreciated among political scientists. For example, Lee Drutman writtes, “One-party democracy is not really democracy.” But Chantal Mouffe goes beyond the mere presence of political parties. It is not enough for her for there to be a nominal party of the opposition. A pluralism of ideas is necessary. There is a natural antagonism that is the essence of the political.

Politics, on the other hand, is simply the banal process of governance. Politics are the realm of diplomacy and democracy. But the political is the life and death element of interests and motivations that drive people to violence in the name of a cause. Democratic theorists have hoped to moderate political interests to establish a consensus. But Mouffe believes this tendency in democracy undermines the fundamental principle of pluralism necessary for democracy to remain democratic.

The Epitome of the Political

Traditional theorists of democracy like Larry Diamond and Adam Przeworski are horrified at the efforts of Donald Trump to undermine the Presidential Election. But Mouffe understands the motivation. Trump is the epitome of the political animal. He has no self-imposed limitations based on norms or even laws. For Trump, elections are never simply about politics. They are political. It is about power. Elections are fought through the ballot, the courts, and possibly even the streets. Nothing is off the table because the outcome of a loss is inconceivable. Every limitation becomes a way the system is rigged against him.

Trump believes the Presidential election was rigged because the system has not allowed him to undermine it. This is a difficult thought for those grounded in the tradition of liberalism and democracy to fully grasp. Many in the Republican Party have crossed a line where the ends justify any means. The reluctance of the courts and the bureaucracy to become complicit in their aims is interpreted as unfairness. This perspective is a contradiction only so long as it remains in the box of liberal democracy. But the Republican Party of Donald Trump has move beyond the confines of liberal democracy. It wants to make the political process more political.

The Democratic Paradox

Democracy is married to liberalism through the notion of the rule of law. A lot has been written about democratic norms in recent years. Some intellectual roll their eyes because political norms have a similar capacity to undermine democracy as they do to preserve it. The Civil Rights Movement tossed aside many political norms based in racism. Those norms preserved a social order of white supremacy. But democratic norms are unwritten rules which preserve democracy. Some cavalierly believe norms are meant to be broken. But those same intellectuals never imagine the law itself could become just another norm. And yet it is. The law is followed and enforced largely as a social norm. There is no requirement for the power of the state to follow the law. Indeed, there are plenty of moments where the state has blatantly ignored the law for its own purposes.

Mouffe views democracy as a paradox. The temptation to bring about consensus in governance undermines the pluralism that is the foundation of democracy. Moreover, liberal aspirations work to box democracy into a space where pluralism becomes incompatible. Pluralism is political. Politics, on the other hand, work to eradicate pluralism. This interpretation views the very principles of democracy as a fundamental tension in its application. In this light, Trump becomes, not an aberration in a democratic order, but the natural consequence of democracy.

Liberalism and Democracy

Takis Pappas defines populism as “illiberal democracy.” But this is almost an oversimplification of the idea. He sees populism as a political approach on the line between authoritarianism and democracy or rather a form of democracy with authoritarian tendencies. Trump, for examples, uses democratic institutions to pursue authoritarian ends. He does not allow liberalism to box in his political ambitions. Instead, he looks to break out of its limits. He is willing to undermine democracy because for him everything is political.

Carl Schmitt believed liberalism was incompatible with democracy because it defied what was political. But his rejection of liberalism became a rejection of democracy. He frames the question as a choice between liberalism and democracy, but in the end, the rejection of one led to the rejection of the other. Mouffe argues Schmitt fails to make sense of democracy because he views the political as antagonistic. Schmitt saw democracy as fundamentally unstable because it allowed the natural antagonism in humanity to proliferate. His argument inevitably led to a justification for totalitarianism.

Agonism as a Solution

Agonism is Mouffe’s solution to democracy’s paradox. It makes space for radical ideas in a democracy because it does not seek to eradicate ideas through consensus and views politics as a contest between irreconcilable groups who accept the conditions of democratic governance as a self-imposed limitation. It embraces polarization because it does not believe differences are reconciled through deliberation. Epistemic democracy sounds elitist, but it forms the foundation for the assumptions in the scholarship of deliberative democracy. There is an assumption in deliberative democracy that there is a genuine right choice. The difference between epistemic democracy and technocracy is the belief in common people to find the best outcome through deliberation among each other.

Radical democracy denies the possibility for resolution through deliberation. It believes there are fundamental differences between groups. Different parties have different interests and ideas. Neither study nor deliberation reconcile these differences. They are fundamental to their identity. Agonism recognizes these differences and values them. Democracy depends on these differences. Radicalism is not a threat to democracy, but a natural outcome of democratic principles.

Nonetheless, there is an expectation in Mouffe’s philosophy that she will always remain outside the mainstream. It is not clear how she might view hegemony should her ideas become part of the mainstream. No matter how far politics shifts to the left, Mouffe assumes she will want to push it further. She will always push for greater equality. Indeed, there is a sense she believes economic equality leads to true political equality. But this view risks the conflation of policy with process. It makes one’s opponents into opponents of democracy, so any source of disagreement becomes not simply space for politics but a challenge to democratic governance.

A Critique of Agonism

Despite all this, Mouffe underestimates the instability brought about from the neoliberal economic philosophy. Right wing populism has morphed neoliberalism into an antipathy of the state. There is a fundamental belief among the far right that government cannot work. This assumption lowers the cost for poor governance. It allows them to blame the system for poor outcomes while the left struggles to defend underfunded programs with mixed outcomes.

Poor governance is a challenge to democracy. The inability of the people to govern effectively becomes an indictment against democracy. The neoliberal agenda talks about The Road to Serfdom, but it fails to place a premium on political freedom. Instead, it is willing to make a devil’s bargain to exchange their political rights for a negative liberty they call economic freedom.

The neoliberal critique had merit in its willingness to challenge the effectiveness of government regulation and administrative programs. But it never tempered its zealous quest for small government with a notion of effective government. Its inability to pivot has led to an ambivalence toward corruption, attacks against the rule of law, and a rejection of democracy.

Agonism offers a way to channel politics in an age of polarization. Yet it has its limitations. It is not a definitive theory of democracy, but rather an alternative perspective. Still, it offers a challenge to the epistemic tendencies of deliberative democracy. And it offers a way for theorists to grasp the temptations of Donald Trump and the Republican Party as they seek to undermine democracy while they simultaneously claim to defend it. Ultimately, agonistics helps the theorist to set aside traditional politics so they can think politically.

More About Agonism

Thoughts on Chantal Mouffe’s Democratic Paradox

Reflections on Chantal Mouffe’s On the Political

Thoughts on Chantal Mouffe’s Return of the Political

Related to Agonism

Thoughts on Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political

Thoughts on Carl Schmitt’s The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy

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