- Radical Democracy and the Politics of Representation
This superb edited collection provides a sustained exploration of the intellectual origins, principal arguments, and political project of “radical” democratic theory—a body of work that the editors distinguish from liberal, Marxist, or communitarian democratic thought by the fact that it holds “difference” (in the Derridean sense of that which exceeds or eludes conceptualization) to take “primacy…over identity” (3). The volume stages a debate between what emerge over the course of its pages as two schools of radical democratic thought, schools which the editors contend are premised on rival ontologies. The first, inspired by the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, subscribes to an “ontological imaginary of lack” that is principally inherited from Lacan. The second, inspired by William E. Connolly, subscribes to an “ontological imaginary of abundance” that is principally inherited from Deleuze (2). The framing contention of the volume is that the political differences between these two schools derive from their rival ontological underpinnings.
When it comes to politics, radical democrats of lack pursue both a critical and a positive project. Their critical project targets discourses (such as nationalism) that construct a holistic and naturalized fiction to suppress “the inherent contingency and historicity of its identity” (6). Their positive project, hegemony, seeks to build a transformative political subject by articulating “different constituencies into a [contestable] whole” (6). It is this persistent concern with identity that distinguishes the democrats of lack from those of abundance who, Nathan Widder explains, press “individuals and collectives to overcome the assumption that some form of identity is necessary for their subjectivity” (34). Tønder and Thomassen elaborate three points on which the politics inspired by the ontology of abundance differs from that inspired by lack: 1) it meets “ethical injunctions and moral commands” with a spirit of “enchantment”; 2) it nurtures components of contemporary society that can break out of such hegemonic formations as capitalism and heteronormativity; 3) it actively fosters minoritarian forms of life that “although operating below the radar of existing social codes, may contribute to the deepening of democratic government” (7).
Although ultimately unpersuaded to view “lack” and “abundance” as distinct ontologies, I came away from this volume with an enriched appreciation for radical democratic theory, with a keen understanding of the leading debates in that field of inquiry, and with a new set of arguments to account for my own position. I was mildly disappointed by one feature of the collection: that the essays grouped under the heading “The Politics of Radical Democracy” remained at such an abstract level. Not one deals with radical democratic politics in practice, thus perpetuating an existing imbalance in this field that has always been long on theory and short on either contemporary empirical or historical cases. This may be a simple omission, or a predilection of scholars trained in political theory. It may also be, as Aletta Norval suggests (more on this below), an effect of the architecture of radical democratic theory itself. In addition, some readers may be bothered by the absence of any sustained treatment of the work written and/or inspired by two theorists who have surely done much to elaborate a politics from an ontology of abundance, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
These are small criticisms, however. It is rare for an edited volume to achieve the intellectual coherence and consistently high quality that this one does. Because of the clarity of its chapters (all written by leading radical democratic theorists, and including closing remarks by William E. Connolly and Ernesto Laclau), this volume will be accessible and illuminating to graduate students new to the field of radical democracy. Yet, because each of the chapters makes an original contribution to the conversation among radical democratic scholars, it is a compelling and enriching read for experts as well.
One of the most noteworthy features of this collection (or perhaps it is not at all remarkable given how radical democracy prizes conflict) is that several of the contributors refute its framing contentions. For example, Oliver Marchart contends that there is...