Chantal Mouffe on Deliberative Democracy and Agonistic Pluralism

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* Article: Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? CHANTAL MOUFFE Social Research [Vol. 66, No. 3, PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRACY (FALL 1999)], pp. 745-758



From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2006:

After the publication of the 1947 classic by Schumpeter (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy), the main model became that of a 'aggregation of preferences', which serviced as a descriptive approach to democracy, rather than as a normative one. It starts from the point of view that self-interest is the motor of action.

The reduction of democracy to procedures, for the treatment of interest group pluralism is what John Rawls wanted to challenge. He affirmed that "deliberation to reach a consensus for the common good" (beyond procedures) was possible, and could reduce dissatisfaction. He defends a 'normative' rather than a mere instrumental rationality. The second school is that of Habermas. (Mouffe links Joshua Cohen's work as continuator of Rawls and Seyla Benhabib as continuator of Haber).

Their work aims to reconcile:

- 1) liberty and equality, i.e. to honour liberalism

- 2) "the liberty of the moderns", the tradition of Locke (freedom of thought and conscience); AND, "the liberty of the ancients", i.e. the tradition of Rousseau (equal political liberties and the values of public life)

- 3) fundamental individual rights AND popular sovereignty

Both schools are based on 'public reasoning among equals'. The procedure must be such that it is accepted by all participants and creates an ideal speech situation, "which allows communication power" to emerge. The latter is a 'regulatory idea' that cannot be fully realized but must be approached.

Both aim to find an area free of pluralism; Rawls by separating a pluralist private sphere, from a public sphere that must ignore it; Habermas by focusing on procedures that leave the answers open.

- "(They) want to ground adhesion to liberal democracy on a type of rational agreement that would preclude the possibility of contestation; they need to relegate pluralism to a non-public domain".

This is what Mouffe finds impossible. According to her, the tension between the logic of liberalism (rights) and the logic of democracy (self-government) cannot be escaped. The pluralism of values has to be accepted.

Also, Rawls seeks justice, and Habermas seeks legitimacy. Respectively, "of institutions that are just", or "decisions that have been made through legitimate procedures", their citizens will then respect liberal democracy.

Mouffe says that the allegiance is also based on passions and emotions, not just rationality. She thinks therefore that both are wrong in positing a a priori subject, instead of looking for the 'conditions of existence' of the democratic subject. She wants an emphasis on the types of practices, not on forms of argumentation. It is the practices that constitute individuality.

Since it is in fact impossible to conceive of a public sphere without power relations, Mouffe says 'antagonism' has to be at the core of a realistic model. Power is constitutive of identities and social relations, not something arising from the parties. Since perfect harmony is impossible, and power cannot be eliminated, the key is to constitute forms of power compatible with democratic values. Thus the new perspective of agonistic pluralism. It is about finding a way to conceive about us vs them relations, that are compatible with pluralist democracy.

- "Envisaged from the point of view of agonistic pluralism, the aim of democratic politics is to construct the 'them' in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy, to be destroyed, but as an adversary, i.e. a legitimate opponent."

Antagonism is what exists between enemies, agonism is what exists between adversaries. The latter have, despite their disagreements, a common ground on the ethical-political principle of equality, and liberty (the basis of liberal democracy), but disagree on the meaning and implementation of such principles. Compromise is possible, temporary 'conversion' is possible, but the conflict cannot be resolved rationally.