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Political and social movements arise around conflicts in society that are not always resolved by democratic and legal means. Why do some conflicts turn violent while others do not? Political theorist Chantal Mouffe talked to us about passions in democracies, the novelty of European right-wing populism, and envisioning the world as a pluriverse.
Chantal Mouffe is one of the most influential political thinkers of our time and has published widely on the intricacies of democratic rule. One of her main theses might nevertheless seem surprising at first glance: Liberal democracies suffer from a severe misunderstanding of the "political" resulting in disenchantment with politics amongst their citizens and turning adversaries in the democratic arena into enemies.
DDD: In "On the Political" and your latest book "Agonistics – Thinking the World Politically", you use the distinction between “antagonism” and “agonism” to argue that liberal democracies suffer from an inherent misunderstanding of the political. Could you get us started by explaining the relationship between these two key concepts?
Chantal Mouffe: Well, that, of course, is a very theoretical issue that is very central to my work. Back in a book I co-wrote with Ernesto Laclau, we attempted to develop an idea of the "political". In order to understand the political, we need two main concepts: antagonism and hegemony. The concept of antagonism is a kind of ontological thesis: We start with the fact that society is always divided.
The conflicts we adapt cannot have a rational solution.
This is already a kind of postulate, because other people coming from other political traditions will not accept that. But our point of departure is the fact that there are antagonisms and, accordingly, the conflicts we adapt cannot have a rational solution. This is what we call antagonism and we postulate some form of pluralism here. This, of course, is very different from the liberal concept of pluralism. According to liberal pluralism, there are differences, but they can all be reconciled. The second concept is based on the idea of hegemony, the fact that every order always has to exclude other possibilities. Again it goes to the idea that you can never ever completely reconcile society given that society is always divided and consensus without exclusion is not possible in any form. Every consensus is always what we call a hegemonic consensus. So it is a specific organisation of power relations.
Theorists like Jürgen Habermas and many liberal democrats think democracy needs to establish consensus. But democracy can never be an absolute consensual order. This part of my reflection is my point of contention with Carl Schmitt. I agree with Schmitt that the dimension of the political is what he called the enemy and what we call the antagonism. But of course, Schmitt believed this is the reason democracy negates liberalism, liberalism negates democracy, and you cannot ever have a pluralist democracy.
But you seem to have your own twist on that thought. Schmitt's only solution to this problem seems to have been a homogenous "Volksgemeinschaft".
Yes, exactly. The idea of antagonism is the twist on that. Schmitt is right that this dimension of antagonism is ineradicable. Still, there is the possibility of envisaging a pluralist democracy, but the condition is to realise - which Schmitt does not - that this dimension of antagonism can take different forms. It can be put into shape. So there is another solution, which is to envisage this antagonistic dimension in the form of an agonism. That is a confrontation in which it is clear that there is no possibility for a final rational resolution, yet in which opponents do not treat each other like enemies to be eradicated but rather as what I call adversaries. Although they recognise that there is no rational solution to their conflict, they recognise the legitimacy of their opponent to defend their position.
But are there limits to this form of pluralism? Where do we draw the line between agonistic opponents in the democratic arena and antagonistic projects that cannot be transformed by democratic institutions?
In an agonistic relationship there is, of course, a form of consensus, a common symbolic terrain between the opponents which is the allegiance to what I call the ethico-political principal that organises our coexistence. But there is conflict concerning the interpretation of those principals.
This is really what pluralist democracy is about: It is a society in which those institutions exist for people to have agonistc struggles between different hegemonic projects.
My claim, in fact, is that this is how one should understand democracy: The role of democratic institutions is not to try to establish some kind of perfect consensus or rational consensus among different groups. It is instead to provide the framework that is going to make it possible for a conflict, when it arises, to take the form of an agonistic conflict between adversaries instead of an antagonistic conflict between enemies. For me, this is really what pluralist democracy is about: It is a society in which those institutions exist for people to have agonistc struggles between different hegemonic projects.
For a couple of years now we have been experiencing a resurgence of right-wing populist parties and even neo-Nazi movements in several European countries. Can this development be related to a disregard for passions and affects in European politics?
Yes, yes. Well, I would prefer to formulate the question in a slightly different way. Because I do not think we have a resurgence of right-wing populist parties. I think that those right-wing populist parties are a very specific new phenomenon. This is why I do not really like it when one refers to them as extreme right. There is a tendency to think about the issue as "fascism is coming back". I think that if we examine a lot of the most important right-wing populist parties, such as the FPÖ in Austria, Marine Le Pen in France, these are new forms, new phenomena. It is not simply a return; that would be too simplistic. It is not like this kind of beast is there waiting to raise its ugly head, you know?
Yes. The left liberal democrats do not even try to understand the specificity, the novelty of those movements. They say "Oh no, we know what it is, it is this coming back". And by the way; I do not think that there is some kind of resurgence of neo-Nazi movements. I mean those neo-Nazi movements, they never disappeared completely and I do not think, honestly, that they are growing more important today. And again, I think it is a big mistake to - as is sometimes done - present right-wing populists as neo-Nazis.
These right-wing populist parties are definitely a kind of new phenomenon.
Take Austria for example: I remember when Jörg Haider came to power in a coalition with the conservatives. Liberal democrats said there is a neo-Nazi in the government in Austria. That was absurd. These right-wing populist parties are definitely a kind of new phenomenon. And that, for me, is the consequence of a lack of agonistic debate in our societies. It is a consequence of the development of what I have called the consensus of the centre, which was basically conceptualized by Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck originally: The "radical centre", the "third way", the idea that we are now in a different form of modernity, a second modernity in which the adversarial model has been overcome, in which we can now have some kind of consensus of the middle. Tony Blair used to say: "We are now all middle class." So there is no more antagonism. And the problem, of course, is that that was presented by those theorists as progress for democracy.
For quite some time, before the success of all those right-wing populist movements in Europe, I have studied the rise of Jörg Haider's FPÖ in Austria. The success of Haider was caused by this kind of coalition politics, the "Sozialpartnerschaft" and the grand coalition that existed between the SPÖ and the ÖVP, the social democrats and the conservatives in Austria. Basically Austrian citizens did not feel that they had the possibility of a choice. This is really a new stage in the development of our societies. There was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation. The only thing that social democratic parties could do when they came to power was manage a little bit, make this neoliberal globalisation more humane. It meant that the parties, you know labour and social democrats, moved to the centre and in fact defined themselves as centre left. So within the field of traditional democratic parties there was no possibility of fighting for an alternative. This created the terrain for the success of those right-wing populist parties. Because the right-wing populist parties are the ones who say: "No, no! There is an alternative. And we are going to give back to the people the possibility to decide."
The alternative they propose is not an acceptable one, of course, and it will not work in any case. Let us take Marine Le Pen in France, for instance. She says: "Well, let's leave the European Union, let's leave the Euro and everything will be wonderful." I mean they are completely realistic if we take xenophobia as a basis. But they tell people that things could be completely different and there is a possibility of a choice.
They acknowledge the role of affects in politics, the fact that politics is necessarily partisan.
And that is a point which I think is very important: Those parties, contrary to the traditional parties, are not rationalists in the sense that passion has no place in politics. They acknowledge the role of affects in politics, the fact that politics is necessarily partisan. You need to create a form of identification. Politics is always a creation of "us" that requires a determination of "them". Those collective identifications are created to a great extent through the mobilisation of affects.
The left in general is usually extremely worried about the mobilisation of affects because they believe this is only done by the right. And I think that is really dangerous. You can not leave that terrain to the right. You are putting yourself into a very fragile position and I think that this is definitively what has been happening in many European countries. But of course, the "us-them" difference can be constructed in different ways: It can be constructed in xenophobic ways like how Marine Le Pen is constructing the "us" in France: "us, the good people" or “les souches” in France. In Germany I have heard the expression "bio-Germans". So the "them" in this case are the immigrants, the Muslims, you know, all those people who are not really part of the "good people". But that is only one way to construct the "us-them". You can construct the "us-them" in a completely different way, an "us-them" in a progressive way, in a democratic form. I think that is the way forward to fighting right-wing populism.
Your mentioning this notion of the hegemony of the neo-liberal model of development reminds me of some interesting remarks you made recently. When asked how your model of agonistics might be useful in the context of international relations, you proposed understanding the world as a "pluriverse" as opposed to a "universe". Could you tell us more about that distinction?
The starting point for my idea of a multi-polar world is that there is not one single model that is valid for every culture, for the rest of the world. I developed this model in contrast to the cosmopolitans. What I have in common with the cosmopolitans is the fact that we both recognise that the present situation – which is already changing – is in fact a situation in which we are living in a uni-polar world: a hegemon, basically the United States and the West, which believes that their model is the only legitimate and rational one. That is problematic because it creates a relation of inequality at the global level. The cosmopolitans say we need to go further than that, that we need to abandon this road of a hegemon as a dominant force, go beyond hegemony. They argue that we need to go beyond national sovereignty to some kind of world sovereign.
The only solution is to pluralize hegemonies.
I argue that this is not possible. At the beginning, I stated that every order - domestic and international alike - is a hegemonic order because there are always other possibilities. If this is the case, then there is no possibility of conceiving of a world that would be beyond hegemony. If, on the other hand, you also recognise that there is a problem in the world which is organised around one hegemon then, of course, the only solution is to pluralize hegemonies.
Let us say that instead of there being only one hegemon, there would be regional poles. Let us define a multi-centred world system in which there is no attempt by any of those poles to impose its views as the most rational, and that some form of pluralism is accepted. In that sense, I argue it could exist, but it is only an analogy. It could be seen as an agonistic world because it is a world in which the different regional poles consider themselves adversaries. They know they do not have the same model, but accept that the Chinese – for instance – want to organise themselves differently than the Muslim world, try to establish a different model of democracy. Because, and this is important for my argument, I believe that the idea of democracy can be inscribed differently in different historic-situational contexts. Our form of democracy, the inscription of the idea of democracy as a government by the people - because this is what it is really about - is inscribed within the liberal tradition, which is influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The idea of how democracy could be inscribed in the Muslim world is going to take different forms.
So that requires variants of institutions. It is a context. It needs to be understood in a certain context. That does not mean that for those reasons we should not defend it, of course. But we should not try to say: "That's the model that every country needs to accept." For instance, the idea of how democracy could be inscribed in the Muslim world is going to take different forms. They have different traditions. And this is where one should really ask about the relevance of secularisation for them.
I think this is definitely a big question. The entire history of secularization has shown that the phenomenon in fact comes from the Protestant Reformation. So it is something very specific to our tradition. It is not my role as a European political theorist to say: "Oh, democracy could be inscribed into the Muslim tradition". That is for them to decide. But I say we should accept that this is a question and not pretend they cannot be democrats if they do not do things the same way we do. For me, this is how antagonistic conflicts arise.
Again, this is where there is some kind of analogy with the domestic model: My argument, domestically, is that if you have a way in which conflicts can take an agonistic form, it is less likely, and I insist on less likely because you can never completely eliminate the possibility of antagonism, but it is less likely conflicts will take a violent form when they arise. And I think the same argument can be made at the global level. I think that if there is the understanding that different regional poles can organise themselves differently, violent conflict is less likely. That does not, of course, eliminate conflict, right? There will always be conflicts. But they might be less bloody than if there is this kind of imposition of a single model. So that is one point.
We are already witnessing the beginning of a multi-polar world.
The other point concerns precisely your question about democracy. If one follows this agonistic concept, what happens with democracy? I have got two things to say. Obviously a world order conceived in an agonistic way is not necessarily going to be a world in which the different poles are democratic. Obviously not. We are already witnessing the beginning of a multi-polar world. Such as the way a country like China is playing an important role at the moment: China is obviously not democratic. It will probably never be democratic, who knows? But I think that even if not all the poles are democratic, it is better to have a multi-polar world because, as I was saying before, it is less likely that the conflicts among the different poles will take a very violent form. One should not reject the possibility that there will be a development of democracy at the global level. But that requires that we accept that those democracies will take different forms and will not be the universalisation of the Western model. It will be the development of a plurality of inscription, of the idea of a government by the people in different traditions.
Interview: Patrick Delaney