Political Theory:009059172199386 (forthcoming)

Agonism emerged three decades ago as an assault on the overemphasis in political theory on justice and consensus. It has now become the norm. But its character and relation to core values of democracy are not as unproblematic today as is often thought, an issue that becomes more pressing as contemporary politics increasingly seem locked into notions of unrelenting conflict between “friends” and “enemies.” This essay traces alternative ontological roots and ethical implications of agonism, distinguishing between “imperializing” and “tempered” modes. The former, exemplified in the popular Schmitt-Mouffe formulation, is shown to be fundamentally flawed in its failure to conceive politics in a fashion that does not allow the dynamic of friend–enemy to imperially trump appeals to democratic norms. In a world of insurgent white nationalism in democratic polities, this is no small fault. “Tempered” agonists, such as William Connolly and Bonnie Honig, offer ontologies where democratic norms can gain traction. Despite the admirable qualities of these alternatives, their formulations are nevertheless not fully persuasive. The difficulty lies in their underarticulated accounts of equality. I suggest an alternative formulation of agonism that embraces a central role for the idea of the moral equality of voice, a value that resides in the seam between notions of difference, resistance, and conflict emphasized by agonists, on the one hand, and the idea of fairness emphasized by notions of democratic justice, on the other.
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DOI 10.1177/0090591721993862
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