Chantal Mouffe on post-democracy: “It’s like a choice between Pepsi and Coke”

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Chantal Mouffe is a well-known Belgian political theorist focusing on the concepts of post-liberalism, neo-marxism and radical democracy. Mouffe gave her talk in Stockholm on 3rd May 2016 in Stockholms Kulturhuset for the occasion of publishing the Swedish translation of her most recent book ‘Agonistik’ (‘Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically’ in English original).

Photo by Pamela Shultz Nybacka, 2016
Photo by Pamela Schultz Nybacka, 2016

Mouffe currently holds a professorship at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, UK, where she directs the Centre for the Study of Democracy. She became widely known for her book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy from 1985, written together with Ernesto Laclau. The post-marxist text alters some of the key concepts of traditional Marxism (such as shifting away from the stress on class division or belief in the eventual struggle-free harmonious society) and introduces most of the key concepts of Mouffe’s later work.

In her political theory, Mouffe takes inspiration namely from Karl Schmitt and his theory of the political, the neo-Marxist theorists Antonio Gramsci or post-structuralism notions of Jacques Derrida. For further reading see the above mentioned Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), The Democratic Paradox (2000), a collection of texts on radical democracy, or most recently published the Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (2014). From texts focused on art as radical tool in democratic systems look up for example articles Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces (2007) or Art and Democracy: Art as an Agnostic Intervention in the Public Space (2008).

The Stockholm’s one-and-half hour talk was fast paced and down to the point, in accord to Mouffe’s direct persona, if slightly less coherent from the moderator Stefan Jonsson’s side. Mouffe started by offering a comprehensive explanation of some of the most prominent concepts of her theory, such as that of the political, the agonistic mode of radical democracy, and the notion of passion as a vital element of political struggle. She then continued with a more detailed description of the role of passion as mobilising element in politics, the problems of contemporary post-democracy and the ultimate need for radicalisation of democracy in order for its effective implementation.

Mouffe, coming from a post-marxist stance, visualises the current state of Western society as that of a post-democratic, neo-liberal existence. Modern democracies, while maintaining the image of traditional democratic system, are more and more controlled by the elites and in their nature deny the original heterogeneous principles of a true democracy. To contest this, Mouffe presents a model of ‘radical democracy’ that aims to bring the real democratic principles back into a functional mode. In order to do this, she emphasises the need for agonistic role of the political, the ‘agonistic pluralism.’

Agonism, from the Greek word agon for struggle, focuses on the potentially positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict. This is not to say that all political conflict has positive effects, but that it is inevitably present in all political representations through different antagonistic parties, and has to be taken into account and used to our benefit.

The agonistic mode, although similar to Marxism in the emphasis on the always present political struggle, differs from Marxism in that it does not predict eventual elimination of the conflict into a harmonious society. There will always be conflict present in agonistic society. However, this conflict is not that of enemy nature, but rather that of adversaries’ confrontation, that of legitimate opponents mutually contributing to the political struggle. In order for such model to work, it is necessary to come to an ultimate, limited agreement upon basic values, a so called ‘conflictual consensus.’

It must be noted that according to Mouffe, the crucial question of a democratic politics is not to arrive at hegemonic consensus, as is currently misinterpreted in the European Union’s policies. On the contrary, the notions of ‘we’ and ‘they’ need to be established in all their antagonist plurality, since their existence is vital for any political conflict. The key role of democracy is then to convert these antagonistic conflicts into positive results.

Key problem of post-democratic, neo-liberal system is most of all the lack of real alternative, a concept vital for democracy. We have reached a post democratic’ stage presented by the absence of alternatives to neoliberalism and neoliberal globalisation. Mouffe states that the state of political alternatives is like the “choice between Pepsi and Coke.” The post-democracy aims for a more or less homogenous society of ultimate consensus and shuns any more or less ‘extreme’ options. This can be seen on the rise of populistic centrism with both left and right wing parties continuously shifting toward the middle of the political spectrum in order to attract more voters and preserve a happy façade suitable for everyone.

Mouffe’s radical democratic mode emphasises the importance of having a plurality of different struggles, the possibility of confrontation between hegemonic projects and representation of the whole range of political scale. Such elements should form the core of a democratic system. Radical democracy cultivates plural practices, mobilisation and passion that will challenge neo-liberal practices.

The element of passion in political activity is another strong term in Mouffe’s political theory. First of all, she emphasises the distinction between passion and emotion. Where emotion is an individual occurrence, passion serves as powerful and inevitable political tool: that of mobilising a common affect in a political domain. It produces an affective dimension that brings people together in collective identities. Passion should and cannot be excluded from democracy as it is essentially what mobilises affect in a progressive dimension needed for democratic representation. Without passion, it is impossible to be politically successful.

Through passion it is possible to overcome the crisis of political representation in the post-democratic, neo-liberal society. Large groups of citizens are either completely omitted or strongly under-represented on the political scene. Mouffe gives example of young people and working classes in their traditional (social democratic) sense. We have to constantly address the creation of a multi-polar world, with initiatives on the whole scale of the political spectrum (both horizontal and vertical) as a solution to under representation of the public. Collective will that is mobilised within these movements can only be truly expressed within the framework of representative democracy.

Mouffe presents a very down-to earth model of democratic system that can be empathised with both by the radicals and the pragmatists. The problem remains, however, that her theories lack certain consistency in terms of practical solutions. At the end of the talk I was left with a number of questions. What happens then, when we have achieved the necessary scale of plurality in the democratic representation? How exactly will this help when dealing with the super-bureaucratised system of the EU’s governmental bodies? Mobilisation and passion are indeed very much needed but would it not be easier to reform already existing structures, even if that means coming from slightly different political stances, rather than to constantly create new, radical democracy movements?

 


Alice Maselnikova, 6th May 2016

Alice Maselnikova is Czech artist, curator, and art coordinator based in Stockholm. Fond of (in alphabetical order): art, books, cheese, chess, jazz, nudes, philosophy, politics, whisky, wine and writing. She holds a BA (Hons) degree in Art, Philosophy, and Contemporary Practices and is taking an MA in Curating Art at Stockholm University. Most recently she was awarded the Transfer North Critical Curatorial Writing Residency 2016-17 and is focusing her research on curatorial practices in the rural context of north-west Russia.

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