Antagonistic Conflict

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Chantal Mouffe:

"The main point of my analysis is that, what I call the Political, has to do with the dimension of the conflict: a conflict that cannot find a resolution through dialogue and that cannot be eliminated. It is an antagonistic conflict, i.e. a conflict to which there can be no rational solution. There are of course conflicts in which one can find a rational solution or one on which everybody agrees. Antagonistic conflicts, on the other hand, are linked to a specific understanding of pluralism, pluralism in the way that it has been interpreted by Max Weber or by Nietzsche; a pluralism of values that cannot be reconciled. This is very different to the liberal understanding of pluralism, as for liberals pluralism implies that there are many different views in the world but if we could see the things from the point of view of others, we would see that all those values put together form some kind of harmonious ensemble. That is the form of pluralism that we find in liberal thought. Then there is another pluralism, which is pluralism with antagonism; one that acknowledges that pluralism entails the existence of conflicts, which can have no rational solution. This is what I call the dimension of the Political.

Once one acknowledges this, it is also important to realise that antagonistic conflict can take different forms. It can take a purely antagonistic form in the distinction between friend and enemy whereby parties in the conflict do share any common ground and where the opponent is treated as an enemy to be destroyed. This kind of conflict is incompatible with a sustainable democracy, because, it can lead to civil war. But there is another way in which this antagonistic conflict can express itself and this is what I call the form of agonism; in that case you have parties who, instead of treating their opponents as enemy, treat them as adversaries, which means that there is a recognition of the legitimacy of the demands of the Other. We know that we disagree and that we will not be able to reconcile our views but we agree that our opponents have also the right to have a different position. This is the form of expression of agonism, which I think is compatible with democratic society.

This dimension of conflict cannot be eradicated; what you need to know is how to manage it. The traditional view would be to find ways to create a consensus. This is the view that I criticise: the idea that democracy is about trying to reach a consensus. What I say is that, the main task in a democracy is not to reach consensus but to manage dissensus; to manage dissensus so that it does not lead to civil war or so that it is not going to be repressed in authoritarian ways; to find forms which make co-existence possible and in fact will be conducive to some form of freedom and recognition of differences –this is what I understand by tolerance." (


On the need for agonistic politics

Chantal Mouffe:

"What I understand by the domestication of conflict is not the elimination of conflict but a way to give it a symbolic form and, for this, institutions are absolutely central. I certainly don’t believe that the intrinsic logic of agonistic pluralism is to evade formal structure. In fact, what makes the prospect of an agonistic politics impossible is the absence of the necessary institutions. For example, I find that the Left-Right distinction is one of the most crucial conditions for the existence of agonistic politics. It is a way of recognising that society is divided. And this is precisely what has been disappearing with the blurring between Left and Right and the Third Way idea of the centre, as the latter does not allow the possibility of choice between different alternatives. When conflict cannot be framed in a political vocabulary, when for example the dominant ideology claims that there is no more Left and Right, then of course conflict is not going to disappear but it is going to express itself under a different form.

Today we are witnessing some kind of moralisation of politics: politics today is played out in a moral register; not between Left and Right but articulated as Right and Wrong, which can be very dangerous.


In an agonistic form of politics we would need a form of consensus, one that consists of basic ethical-political principles, around which we will organise our co-existence; democracy, liberty, equality for all. But of course it’s a consensus that is conflictual because there will always be conflicting interpretations of those principles and there is no rational way to come to a consensus on the TRUE interpretation. Nevertheless, what is common is a symbolic space in which the struggle between interpretations takes place." (