Chantal Mouffe's Agonistic Project: Passions and Participation

Parallax 20 (2):14-30 (2014)

Matthew Jones
University of Greenwich
It is Chantal Mouffe’s contention that the central weakness of consensus-driven forms of liberalism, such as John Rawls’ political liberalism and Jurgen Habermas’ deliberative democracy, is that they refuse to acknowledge conflict and pluralism, especially at the level of the ontological. Their defence for doing so is that conflict and pluralism are the result of attempts to incorporate unreasonable and irrational claims into the public political sphere. In this context, unreasonable and irrational claims are those that cannot be translated into universalizable terms. However, for Mouffe, it is this intentional exclusionary act itself that is detrimental to a well- functioning democratic polity. It is only through the inclusion of a diverse body of subject positions that a democratic polity can be said to be truly representative of the polity, and therefore constitute a functioning and inclusive democracy. This paper will examine Mouffe’s account of agonistic pluralism. In doing so, it will demonstrate that instead of being a source of instability within the democratic discourse and therefore relegated into the private non-political sphere, passions and values that are constitutive of these subject positions ought to be incorporated into the public political sphere. Mouffe’s rationale for doing so is that it is precisely through their incorporation that citizens will retain their allegiance to the democratic polity. However, as part of this examination, this paper will also draw attention to an under-developed aspect of Mouffe’s account of agonistic democracy, specifically problems regarding both participation and exclusion. Whilst Mouffe does provide a robust counterpoint to both Rawls’ political liberalism and Habermas’ deliberative democracy, it is my contention that she fails to explain adequately what it is that persuades participants to act democratically and adhere to the requirements of agonal respect, nor what should happen when the ethico- political principles of liberty and equality are not accepted.
Keywords Chantal Mouffe  agonism  radical democracy  political participation  John Rawls  Jürgen Habermas  democracy  radical pluralism  pluralism  political liberalism
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