Thursday, 13 January 2011

The limits of agonistic pluralism

Two models of public space

A month or so ago I read through  an interesting booklet, Global Democracy and the World Social Forums, written jointly by no less than twelve (!) social movement researchers. It's nice book, with lots of statistics and some interesting arguments, not least concerning the logic of networking and the role of autonomous forums in relation to the WSF (World Social Forum).

One section, however, struck me as a little too simplistic. The authors claim that there are two models of public space that inform the WSF. The dominant one is a Habermas-inspired model of "deliberative public space" in which the forum is conceived of along the lines of a lifeworld or haven of communicative reason offering resistance to the system. This idea, the authors suggest, is expressed in the WSF charter in which the WSF is conceived of not as an actor in its own right but as a space, neutral in itself, offering the infrastructure for deliberation between a multiplicity of actors. The weakness of this model is that it neglects that the forums are  contested terrain. They are not fully open or neutral, but contain their own hierarchies (p.38).

The other model, that of "agonistic public space", is offered by Chantal Mouffe who in turn is inspired by Arendt. Here the presence of power is recognized. The forum is seen as a "space of appearance" in Arendt's sense, where politics is meant to be enacted in public as theater. The authors add that the forums are excellent examples of how threatrical public spaces emerge outside territorially based institutions. “In this sense, the forum is not only a space for rational discourse, but it is also a space of performance” (p.37). The authors see an interaction between these two models in the way activists set up "autonomous" spaces in an ambiguous  “one foot in, one foot out”-relation to the official main social forum, utilizing the deliberative space provided by the official forum while transforming it into an agonistic space through a mixture of discursive debate and spectacular conflict (p.44-47).

What appears to me to be insufficiently illuminated here is how agonistic public space relates to the issue of exclusion. Early on in the book, the authors stress that they view the WSF as an arena precisely for the excluded. “In this sense, it constitutes a new body politic, a common public space where previously excluded voices can speak and act in plurality”(p.13).The problem, however, is in what sense an "antagonistic" public space is less exclusive than a "deliberative" one. 

The reference to Arendt here is hardly helpful. Indeed, it is precisely because the authors so explicitly raise the issue of exclusion that the reference to her seems so mystifying, and the juxtaposition of these two "models" of public space appears so glaringly insufficient and simplistic. The truth is that in neither of the two models is public space conceived of as a space for the "excluded". In Arendt no less than in Habermas - and, as I will discuss below, in Mouffe - public space is in fact constituted by exclusion. What needs to be thought through, I believe, is precisely this all too common act whereby "openness" or "publicness" is constituted by restrictions on openness itself.

It is correct that for Arendt, the "space of appearance" is where participants appear as political beings by virtue of play-acting, but this is not play-acting in the sense of musical or theatrical performances. What is necessary for public life is play-acting in the sense of a bracketing of private life - of things such as work or labor, of the material and bodily aspects of life.  This is why, to her, public life is threatened by processes such as the "rise of the social", by the rise, in other words, of the labor movement and the welfare state. Seeing her as the forerunner of Mouffe's agonistic pluralism is fine, but one should also recognize that there are limits to her pluralism. Critics of Habermas often refer to the supposedly exclusive nature of his model of consensus-oriented political action and its insensitivity to difference. Even if Arendt doesn't use the word "consensus" as Habermas does, her conception of politics both presupposes a certain consensus (since people must agree on what aspects of the private should should be bracketed in order for a separate sphere of political activity to come into being) and idealizes it in the sense of "acting in concert" or "acting and speaking together". This can be seen in her famous concept of "power". Unlike violence, which is purely instrumental, power  is the “human ability not just to act but to act in concert” and never belongs to an individual but “to a group” and “remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (Arendt 1970:44).

Note that I am not claiming that Arendt is idealizing the idea of a possible universal consensus, as Habermas does. There are certainly many differences between Arendt and Habermas. What I want to emphasize is that it is not possible, on the basis of these differences, to claim that Arend's public is less exclusive than Habermas'. A universalist ideal of rationally achieved consensus certainly often tends to be exclusive, but so does Arendt's idea of power.

My aim here is not to criticize Arendt in particular, but to point out that it simply isn't seem sufficient if one really wants to provide a space "for the excluded" to rely on Habermas or Arendt. So what about Mouffe?

Mouffe on agonistic pluralism

I have two criticisms of Mouffe's "Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism": 1. She misunderstands Habermas, 2. Her model of “radical democracy” is insufficiently radical.

Firstly, she criticizes Habermas for "postulating the availability of a public sphere where power and antagonism would have been eliminated and where a rational consensus would have been realized". By portraying the ideal of "impartiality" and of democratic decisions "equally in the interests of all" as possible to achieve through "the appropriate public processes of deliberation that follow the procedures of [his own] discourse model", his model of democratic politics "denies the central role in politics of the conflictual dimension" (Mouffe 1999:747, 752). I doubt that Habermas has ever portrayed "impartiality" or decisions "equally in the interests of all" as actually achievable through the procedures he delineates. From a critical theoretical standpoint, the reason is obvious: that would be ideology. Neither has he ever, as far as I know, portrayed a public sphere without power or antagonism as "available" (denying such availability is the very point of making a distinction between what he calls real and ideal speech situations).

Habermas is, I think, partly a historicizing social theorist inspired by pragmatism (public debate is not perfect but the closest thing to perfection since it is at least more open to input from the other than outright struggle or a reliance on silent empathy). Partly he is also a Kantian who believes in universal consensus  as a regulative ideal transcendentally presupposed in language use (in order to believe something to be true or right we need to believe that it could withstand criticism in an ideal speech situation). He is, in other words, far from the easily demolished strawman Mouffe makes of him. Habermas could, I believe, reply to Mouffe's criticism both in a pragmaticist way (would hegemonic struggle be any less exclusive of the other?) and in a Kantian way (when we engage in discourse struggle, how do we know that we are right in believing in the things we are struggling for?).

As a more "adequate model of democratic politics", Mouffe presents her own "agonistic pluralism", which is based on the recognition of "the ineradicability of power, of antagonism, and of the fact that there can never be total emancipation but only partial ones (ibid 752). Mouffe is quite open about how exclusive this kind of politics must be, partly because it necessarily defines itself against an adversary, and partly because it can only tolerate "legitimate" enemies with whom one shares the same "ethnico-political principles":
Politics aims at the creation of unity in a context of conflict and diversity; it is always concerned with the creation of an "us" by the determination of a "them." The novelty of democratic politics is not the overcoming of this us/them distinction – which is what a consensus without exclusion pretends to achieve – but the different way in which it is established. What is at stake is how to establish the us/them discrimination in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy.
    In the realm of politics, this presupposes that the "other" is no longer seen as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an "adversary," i.e., somebody with whose ideas we are going to struggle but whose right to defend those ideas we will not put into question. This category of the adversary does not eliminate antagonism, though, and it should be distinguished from the liberal notion of the competitor, with which it is sometimes identified. An adversary is a legitimate enemy, an enemy with whom we have in common a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of democracy. (ibid 755)
This, I think, is a remarkable passage. Apart from the fact that Mouffe stresses the constitutive role of the us/them distinction more than Arendt, the resemblances to her are many. We find the same emphasis on acting in concert, the same emphasis on power rather than violence, and the same emphasis on the need to restricting political interaction to those who share a similar set of basic principles. What is a bit surprising is how close Mouffe's vision is to mainstream liberalism (despite her disavowal of the "liberal notion of the competitor") and to the classical liberal defence of the freedom of speech. Although what she calls "discourse" is much broader than mere speech, it is clear from the context that discursive struggle must at least refrain from acts aimed at destroying the opponent. There are echoes of Voltaire here (the statement ascribed to him about being ready to die for the right of opponents to express their views) and of Kant too. Saying that we are free to engage in discursive struggles so long as we refrain from non-discursive ones sounds like one of the most famous sentences from Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?: "Argue as much as you like, but obey".  

What, by the way, are the "ethico-political" principles that Mouffe thinks political adversaries need to share? She doesn't say. What we get is nothing more than the following statement:
To be sure, pluralist democracy demands a certain amount of consensus, but such a consensus concerns only some ethico-political principles. Since those ethico-political principles can only exist, however, through many different and conflicting interpretations, such a consensus is bound to be a "conflictual consensus."(ibid 756)  
But if interpretations of these principles are so conflicting, how can they serve as criteria for "legitimate" adversaries? What are the limits for when the adversary ceases to be “legitimate”? What does the idea of restricting political engagement to "legitimate" enemies mean in reality? It sounds a bit like: there can be no negotiating with terrorists. But how about Nazis? Can't an adversary be "legitimate" even if she or he doesn't share my ethico-political principles - for instance, if he or she belongs to another religion?

Not only does Mouffe, like Arendt and Habermas, presuppose a rather restrictive notion of consensus as the basis of legitimate politics, she also appears to be less radical and less open to "others" than some thinkers, like Rancière, who recognize that democratic politics is more about the public visualization of dissent by previously marginalized or "invisible" groups, than about the struggle of discourses. Such a visualization, Rancière claims, usually takes the form of a "breach of the ordering of the sensible" - or, in other words, of an upsetting or shattering of the discursive field, rather than a discursive struggle among adversaries sharing an ethico-political framework. 

A final quote:
To deny that there ever could be a free and unconstrained public deliberation of all matters of common concern is therefore crucial for democratic politics. When we accept that every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power and that always entails some form of exclusion, we can begin to envisage the nature of a democratic public sphere in a different way (ibid 756) 
Wouldn't such a vision risk leading to a democracy that is openly exclusive and that has given up hope about a stop to exclusion?  I have nothing particular against the assertion that power in a certain (Foucauldian or Arendtian) sense is inescapable in politics or even something good, but to accept exclusion as necessary seems to me to be a far more serious concession. Isn’t there another way out, namely to constantly work against exclusion, even without ever presupposing that end to be realizable? Isn't that the third model that is missing in the account of the models of public space in the WSF?


Arendt, Hannah (1970) On Violence, Orlando: Harcourt Books.

Mouffe, Chantal (1999) “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?”, pp 745-758, Social Research 66(3) (Fall).

Smith, Jackie et al (2008) Global Democracy and the World Social Forums, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.