Political Theory – Agonism – Arguments of Chantal Mouffe – 1 April 2012


I’m posting this for anyone amongst my friends who may wonder why I have the political beliefs that I do. I spend a lot of time defending my points of view about various topics on here (even though I’m sure many of you would like me fine if I didn’t, and some might actively wish that I didn’t). Most of the reason I do that is because I want to practice making a better case for the coherence of those views – which is sometimes a challenge because I’m a socialist left-winger who disagrees with a lot of received leftist ideas, someone who admires liberalism and pragmatism but detests cynical, mushy and triangulating centrism, and someone who admires historic preservationism and the ideas of Edmund Burke but continues to be appalled by most of what is currently called conservatism. I think all of that hangs together, and is not just a mess of ideas all over the place…but I worry that I’m not making that clear to others.

The Belgian social scientist Chantal Mouffe has some ideas that are similar to mine, and she does a better job than I typically do of demonstrating the coherence of her worldview.

She describes herself as an “agonistic pluralist”. An “agonist” is someone who believes in confronting adversaries, but also in respecting them as adversaries, rather than destroying them as enemies. A “pluralist” is someone who believes in respecting the rights of those who hold other points of view, especially since on occasion they may actually be persuasive points of view. I generally would describe my views in a similar way.

Mouffe notes that one committed to agonism would have to admit that pluralism is something that, at some point, would have to be limited. She uses the Salman Rushdie example from Britain to make this point. Some Muslims have argued that the British are insufficiently pluralist because they don’t respect the rights of those who would speak in favour of killing Rushdie. Mouffe, rightly, regards that as nonsense. Those who advocate Rushdie’s killing are not agonists – they see their adversary as an enemy who must be destroyed, not an adversary merely to be confronted. As widely as we would like to be “pluralistic” and respect the rights of people to have differing views, at some point, we have to draw a line. So Mouffe does that. She’s a pluralist, but one that recognises that there’s a difference between confronting an idea with which one strongly disagrees and killing those whose ideas are different than yours.

Mouffe is also right that liberals and consensus-theorists like John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas spent a lot of time hemming, hawing and wringing hands about this kind of problem of pluralism…along the lines of “Golly, _are_ we being unfair to theocratic jihadis who want to kill dissident writers?”…when it should be pretty clear that we should be confronting them for their contributions to the terrorisation of Rushdie.

Mouffe defends pretty well a vision of politics where one is allowed to take strong stands and reject consensus views, but also where one must be committed to respecting adversaries at some level, at the least, as those with a right to exist and a right to disagree. For me, the big stumbling block for “agonistic pluralism” is what to do about the fact that we live in a world where non-agonistic anti-pluralists try to kill us for disagreeing with _them_. I’m not sure Mouffe offers any solutions there, and I sometimes wonder whether I have them myself. Take, for example, the recent killing of Moammar Gaddafi. Perhaps I might have preferred if he stood trial for his crimes, and that would certainly be the “agonist” position. On the other hand, he was actively participating in military operations when he was killed. It’s hard for me to condemn those who saw his killing, even given the specific conditions under which he was captured, as self-defence. I feel the same way about the Nuremberg trials, Dresden, the bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, etc. This is probably something that those friendly to “agonism” should be discussing – how to share the world with those actively trying to obliterate others instead of living with them. (Still, in the post-World War II world, we have seen Germany and Japan live in a more pluralist way, and I have hopes we will also see this in Libya.)

Despite all that, I do find that I strongly agree with Mouffe’s general political attitude. I take stands – strong stands – in politics, because I think certain consensus points of view need to be challenged. I regard those in other camps on certain issues as adversaries, and I confront their points of view rather than wheedle and cajole them, or meekly shut up if more people agree with them than me at the moment. But I don’t read other people out of the human family, I just take issue with their views. And I expect similar treatment from them.

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