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  • The Agony of the Political
  • Robert T. Tally Jr. (bio)
Review of: Chantal Mouffe, On the Political. London: Routledge, 2005.

In On the Political, Chantal Mouffe argues that all politics, properly conceived, must be agonistic. The “political” for Mouffe names a field of struggle where contesting groups with opposing interests vie for hegemony. Rather than being the rational conversation of modern liberalism, politics involves a battle where a recognizable “we” fight against a likewise identifiable “they.” Mouffe agonizes over the fact that so many political theorists today would deny the antagonistic character of the political. She wishes to combat the pervasive sense among social theorists that, since the end of the Cold War and the advent of globalization, we are living in a “post-political” world, a world in which the problems of societies are resolved by recourse to universal human values, liberal consensus, and human rights.

Mouffe argues that by denying the existence of partisan and adversarial interests based on collective identities, modern liberalism has foreclosed the symbolic space for such conflicts to occur. Mouffe enlists the aid of a strategic ally, the conservative theorist Carl Schmitt, to help make her case. This is a dangerous move, because Schmitt is opposed to the sort of pluralist democracy Mouffe wants to champion. Schmitt’s anti-liberalism provides a tincture against the platitudinous banalities of that philosophy. For Schmitt, politics always involves collective identities of we/they. This characterization of self and other is also a friend/enemy distinction, which can then lead to violent disavowals of the other’s right to exist at all. There can be no rational consensus because identity is always based on exclusion. There is no alternative to the we/they binary, so the goal cannot be to overcome this antagonism. According to Mouffe, Schmitt concludes that pluralism has no place in democratic society; only a homogenous society can work. For Mouffe, who insists on democratic pluralism, the goal is to maintain Schmitt’s agonism and to prevent it from becoming antagonism. In other words, she wants to maintain a we/they relationship while keeping it from devolving into a friend/enemy relationship. “The fundamental question for democratic theory is to envisage how the antagonistic dimension—which is constitutive of the political—can be given a form of expression that will not destroy the political association” (52).

Mouffe insists that, contrary to appearances, the agonistic model actually makes for a more harmonious, and safer, society in the long run. This is in part because partisans have an arena in which to fight. She cites the rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe. As political parties and theorists deny traditional categories of collective identity, fringe parties championing just such traditional ideas (e.g., “the people”) have shown themselves able to garner strong support from those disaffected by society. By appearing to offer a real difference, clearly identifying a friendly “we” (the people) and an enemy “they” (foreigners, for instance), right-wing groups have filled a void left by post-political liberalism. Many liberal democrats might view these people as un- or anti-modern, residues of a passing era, epigones who will inevitably fade away before the inexorably open, rational, cosmopolitan world that is unfolding. But Mouffe shows that the return of such movements is a timely reaction to the current situation of global politics.

The successes of these movements have also enabled a dangerous overlapping between morality and politics. If the “they” is our enemy, then they are not only wrong, but evil. This is not morality substituted for politics, but, as Mouffe says, politics “played out in the moral register” (75). Once this occurs, the opportunity for a truly agonistic politics is lost, because an evil enemy cannot be permitted to be part of the contest. Nor would a party that is considered “evil” want to play the game. Turning a “they” into an evil enemy can lead to nonparticipation in the political arena, which can lead to anti-democratic forms of protest (at the extreme, terrorism). Rather than acknowledging the merits of one’s opponents and striving to overcome the opponents in a contest, the moralists call their enemies immoral and have done with...

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