Wednesday, 12 October 2016


Just a few remarks about Chantal Mouffe's Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013). This is a thin book in which she extends previous arguments to the issue of a multipolar world and devotes more space to discussing the role of art in hegemonic struggles. I won't repeat my criticism of what I see as some of the major shortcomings of her approach. Instead, I will just briefly mention two things I found interesting, namely her criticisms of Arendt and Badiou. I'll end with a remark on her claim that antagonism is inescapable and why I find it problematic.

First, she distinguishes her own agonistic approach from that of Arendt: “In my view, the main problem with the Arendtian understanding of ‘agonism’ is that... it is an ‘agonism without antagonism’” (p. 9f). Arend stresses the element of contention and struggle in her view of the public, but continues to believe in the possibility and desirability of consensus. Therefore “Arendt ends up, like Habermas, envisaging the public space as a space where consensus can be reached” (p. 10). Against those, like Benhabib, who see Arendt and Habermas as exponents for two contrasting models of the public, Mouffe thus claims that Arendt's “pluralism is not fundamentally different from that of Habermas” (p. 10). Although she stresses struggle more than logical argumentation, “neither Arendt nor Habermas is able to acknowledge the hegemonic nature of every form of consensus” (p. 11).

She then turns to thinkers inspired by Arendt, such as Bonnie Honig. Here her criticism changes tack. Honig isn't criticized so much for consensus-orientation as for focusing too much on contestation around identities, forgetting “the necessity not only of challenging what exists but also of constructing new articulations and new institutions” (p. 11). “The main shortcoming of the agonistic approaches influenced by Arendt and Nietzsche is that, because their main focus is on the fight against closure, they are unable to grasp the nature of the hegemonic struggle. Their celebration of a politics of disturbance ignores the other side of such struggle: the establishment of a chain of equivalence among democratic demands and the construction of an alternative political hegemony” (p. 14). Acknowledging that antagonism is ineradicable “requires that we do not elude the moment of decision, and this will necessarily imply some form of closure. It might be that an ethnical discourse can avoid this moment, but a political one certainly cannot” (p. 15). Here I recall her criticism of Occupy activists for focusing too much on disruption, the mere challenging of status quo, and too little on constructive engagement with the political system.

Her criticism of Badiou is that he makes truth a category of the political sphere. He asserts the politics produced by subjects defined by their particular relation to a truth event. “The decision of a subject to remain faithful to an event is what produces a truth” (p. 16). She claims that this emphasis on fidelity privileges an ethical perspective on politics, undermining the political as such. The ethics of unconditional truth is a odds with politics, since the latter deals with the conditional: a hegemonic order is always contestable and “should never be justified as dictated by a higher order and presented as the only legitimate one” (p. 17). Later in the book she also criticizes Badiou for his adherence to communism or the “communist hypothesis”, which she claims connotes an anti-political vision of a society without antagonism (p. 82f).

A few comments. Is this criticism fair? To start with Badiou, fidelity to a truth can be politically important without necessarily leading to the legitimation of order. How about fidelity to the truth of radical democracy, or to some cause such as helping refugees or the homeless? Implicit in her criticism that fidelity implies an "ethical" perspective is the charge that it denies the essentially agonistic quality of politics and hence promotes depoliticization. But this is not convincing: to a large extent it is fidelity of this sort that propels and constitutes political action. Without it, much political action would simply die. Nothing in an ethical perspective per se is inimical to struggle or antagonism. Mouffe's own stress on the role of emotions in political struggles also strongly suggests that something like fidelity to the "truth" embodied in the central nodal points or empty signifiers that serve to unify discourses are constitutive of political struggle. Her defense here would probably be that the "ethical", even where it promotes struggle, projects a possible end-state of restored peace where the political would again be occluded. In other words, her defense would be that fidelity to truth by necessity implies the other great error Badiou commits, namely embracing an anti-political vision of a society without antagonism.

Why is this an error, according to Mouffe? Behind this, of course, lies her idea of antagonism as an inescapable dimension of the political - a dimension so important that she rejects not only all those theories that "post-politically" deny or cover up conflicts in the present but also all utopian visions of a future end to antagonism. This is one of her central ideas. But it's also a very ambiguous idea. While insisting on inescapable antagonism may sound very radical, it also, paradoxically, has very un-radical implications. To put it harshly, insisting on inescapable antagonism is reactionary in the same sense that the realist school of international relations or the idea of a homo oeconomicus driven only by self-interest are reactionary. These ideas all dogmatically assert “war” as an ahistorical constant. Again and again, Mouffe rejects theoretical opponents by simply referring to their supposed neglect of the ineradicable antagonism, but she never explains why antagonism must be a constant. Her idea is ahistorical since it neglects the fact that antagonism too is a historical product - something that is shaped by history and that varies depending on the overall historical or societal situation. A possible defense might be that the assumption of antagonism is "ontological" and hence independent of "ontic" or merely historical circumstance. But the drawback of positing antagonism as ontologically given is that it becomes inexplicable and hence only possible to assert dogmatically. I find it hugely problematic that this dogmatic assertion is used by her as the basis for her strictures on activists and radical intellectuals, who are told to either adhere to her logic - strive for hegemony, but give up your utopias - or face the charge of being "post-political".

A word, finally, on the utopia of consensus. I can't help finding Mouffe's understanding of consensus crude. For instance, she writes that “those who foster the creation of agonistic public spaces will conceive of critical art in a very different way than those whose aim is the creation of consensus” (p. 92). But to Arendt and to critical theorists, consensus is aimed at through critique. How different is that, in practice, from what Mouffe wants to do? She might reply, of course, that her aim is a hegemony that is self-aware of its merely hegemonic and hence transitory nature. But such an approach fails to account for the various Utopias that protesters have aimed at for millennia. Can she declare them all wrong? Isn’t it rather that Utopia always exists as a transcendental element, which is never fully realized but which informs all radical action and serves as a regulative idea (as in the case with Karatani's "X" or even Habermas’s ideal speech situation) which is always presupposed in critique for critique to be effective and persuasive? If so, then Utopia is needed for politically efficatious action. This Utopia doesn't need to to be spelled out or even be given much substantial content. As Bloch pointed out, it exists in rudimentary fashion whenever people feel that "something is missing" (etwas fehlt). In communicative action, the content of a future consensus can never be fixed or stated in advance. Yet even as an insubstantial ideal, it spurs people to engage in protests and criticism, simply because they cannot rest content with letting prevailing viewpoints or opinions dominate society. What activists or protesters long for is usually not just another round of hegemonic struggle, but a better world that is supposed to be the result of that struggle. That longing isn't an obstacle to the struggle, but something that spurs it on. If that is so, then isn't it Mouffe's own strictures on Utopia - rather than the "post-political" striving for consensus - that risk undermining the political? 

Chris Bracey

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