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Chantal Mouffe and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

McKenzie Wark30 June 2016

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This essay first appeared in Public Seminar

Watching the American Presidential Primaries and now the "Brexit" vote in the UK on leaving the European Union, I am struck by how apt the political theory of Chantal Mouffe is to both situations. Both in the US and the UK, there was a contest as to whether liberal democracy would be liberal or "democratic." And if it is to be democratic, it was a contest as to what kind of demos — people — democracy is supposedly about. Or so it appeared to me, given that I was reading Chantal Mouffe at the time. Her two most recent books Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (Verso, 2013) and The Democratic Paradox (Verso, 2005) provide a useful perspective, although perhaps a limited one.

With Brexit, the "liberal" position was to remain; the "democratic" one was to leave. Curiously enough, both Labour and the Tories had to give some version of the liberal position. David Cameron was more convincing on this than Jeremy Corbyn, who has considerably more reservations about the benefits of the EU for labour. The "democratic" position was put by the Tory euroskeptics and the quasi-fascist UKIP. By democratic, I mean an appeal to a people pictured as having a strong sense of identity that excludes others. Of course, this appeal was cynical, and a means of getting votes for some version of a return to British "sovereignty," which in the hands of the Tories would mean further undermining of worker’s rights, consumer protection and so forth.

Interestingly, both major parties are in crisis. Cameron was astute enough to step down and leave his skeptic opponents in the party with figuring out if a Brexit is even possible. The "liberal," Blairite faction in Labour seized the opportunity to overthrow Corbyn, who stands for a democratic turn within the party, but to the left. Corbyn is left with the difficult task of finding an affective — and effective — democratic language that is anti-racist but which speaks for a people against its enemies. Its enemies in this case being a trans-national ruling class.

Meanwhile, in the US, two versions of the liberal in liberal democracy were represented by the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. The former was able to fend off a version of the democratic, the latter was not. It might seem tendentious to bracket both Bush and Clinton together as "liberal" and even more so to treat their challengers, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as "democratic," but there’s a specific meaning of both terms within which this makes sense.

Liberal here has more its classical than its American meaning. Both Clinton and Bush stood for the rule of law, private property, limited government (with some concessions to certain interest groups, of course), and a rather abstract idea of what it means to be an American citizen. Democratic also has a quite specific meaning. Both Sanders and Trump emphasize a rather stronger sense of what it means to be included as a citizen in the demos, and a corresponding sense of exclusion. For Sanders, what is excluded is “Wall Street,” for Trump, what is excluded is the foreigner.

These are very different versions of the demos. One comes close to being class based while the other is nationalist and jingoistic. Interestingly, both coupled a strong sense of who the demos is against with a strong sense of what the demos can share. At least in the initial part of his campaign, Trump was careful to support existing social welfare and healthcare benefits for what in narrow and racist terms are perceive to be deserving members of the demos. Sanders, on the other hand, stressed making higher education free. In very different ways, these democratic challengers appealed to a stronger sense of participation in the demos. Citizenship is not just an abstract category, but a felt sense of belonging and sharing.

American politics might not be all that exceptional here. Many polities are experiencing something similar. Mainstream parties of center-right and center-left complexion find themselves challenged from the left and the right, sometimes by a left that is more clearly socialist and a right that is in direct and obvious continuity with fascist formations of the past. That version of liberalism often called neoliberalism finds itself under pressure from its old rivals, both of which can be seen in turn as competing versions of a democratic challenge. In some cases, such as Greece, the left-democratic force prevailed; in others, such as Poland or Hungary, the right-democratic force prevailed. In Austria, the Presidential election ended up being a closely contested affair between the Green candidate and a far-right neo-fascist.

Two different kinds of stress might be pulling liberal democracy apart. One is austerity. A polity stripped to the minimum of regulatory functionality for the benefit of financial looting provokes reactions against the liberal side of liberal democracy to which both class and nation based versions of the democratic can appear as a alternative. In Greece, for once, this favored the demos of the left, although once Syriza was elected, it turned out there was not a whole lot they could do — or were willing to do — about austerity.

The other stress is the global refugee crisis. It seems reasonable now to say that climate change is adding to the usual raft of geopolitical shenanigans leading to destabilization on the edges of the imperial system. Aridity is spreading across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Millions of people are on the move. Both in Europe Union states and in Australia, right wing versions of the demos as a shared national belonging is alarmingly popular. Both center-left and center-right parties find themselves caught up in accommodating this rightist demos within otherwise liberal versions of politics, more concerned with keeping the wheels of commerce turning.

How to think this further? Perhaps we could follow Chantal Mouffe, who might want to think these particular instances of politics against the background of what she takes to be a more fundamental concept: the political. In Agonistics, Mouffe thinks the political is a kind of ontological ground under any possible politics. Its most characteristic feature is what she calls radical negativity. There is always an ineradicable difference that cannot be annexed or subsumed or reconciled into a polity, no matter how plural. There’s always a point of non-identity. The political solution is to construct a boundary that excludes the other as a constitutive outside. The “moment of the political” is when a we is confronting a them. (A18)

Particularly in its racist and nationalist version, this boundary presents itself as a natural fact, but it is important for Mouffe that the distinction between an us and a them is arbitrary, contingent and constructed — no matter how much it appears as given to common sense. Political power is an articulation of particular forces linked by a chain of equivalence in which they can appear together as an us, forming a hegemonic power against a them. Thus, for Sanders we are all in this together against “the big banks,” which should be broken up. Or, for Trump we are all in this together against “Mexican rapists,” to be kept out by an enormous wall for which Trump will somehow get Mexico to pay. Even the more conventionally liberal politics of Hillary Clinton is powerfully organized around the struggle against “terrorism,” on which she promises a far more belligerent stance than President Obama.

All of these are versions of an American us against an un-American them with rich histories. Mouffe: “What is at a given moment accepted as the ‘natural’ order, jointly with the common sense that accompanies it, is the result of sedimented hegemony practices. It is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity that is exterior to the practices that brought it into being.” (A2) Hegemony is felt rather than thought, and requires a constitutive outside. A people is called into being in the construct of shared feeling of commitment and belonging, but which is always incomplete and unstable about the edges.

Mouffe’s political theory is not governed by an ethical ideal of a perfect polity, still less a universal one. It is not driven by a desire to achieve the best state of affairs, but to avoid the worst one. How can the distinction between us and them be agonistic rather than antagonistic? Can their be institutions that can be more or less generally accepted as mediating conflict? Can institutional forms of mediation head off the danger of essentialist identities and non-negotiable demands?

There is a role, then, for institutions that can sublimate the conflicting passions that are at the root of the political. Even if those institutions fall far short of an ethical ideal of universal justice, and are themselves the product of past hegemonic articulations. And even if those institutions fall short of being open to endless negotiation with proliferating differences, but yield to the moment of decision on matters of concern. There won’t ever be universal peace and justice, but there need not be a war of all against all. “This agonistic encounter is a confrontation where the aim is neither the annihilation nor the assimilation of the other, and where the tensions between the different approaches contribute to enhancing the pluralism that characterizes a multipolar world.” (A41)

The limited virtue of liberal democracy is that while it won’t reconcile everybody, but it might manage some measure of pluralism within the constraint of the us/them boundary. Mouffe does not pursue it, but it occurs to me that it might be possible to think also about which aspects of the relation to a them can be constructive. Cold War rivalry drove a commitment of state resources to both culture and science. America’s economic rivalry with Japan drove advances in manufacturing quality.

In The Democratic Paradox, Mouffe advances her concept of the political through a critical reading of Carl Schmitt, a particularly illiberal political theorist and Nazi jurist. For Schmitt, the homogeneity of a people is the condition of possibility for democracy, where democracy means rule by the people. A people can distinguish friend from enemy. As Mouffe parses this thought, “democracy requires a conception of equality as substance” and “citizens must partake of a common substance.” (D38) I’ll come back to that.

The democratic paradox is the incompatibility of democracy with liberalism, which is not a politics of a particular people, but of an abstract humanity composed of individuals. Thus, liberals can dream of a universal polity in which the rights of individuals to own property and look after their own affairs is protected, but this isn’t democracy. A democracy posits a particular people, who exist in some sort of equality with each other, but against some other people, who are unequal to us. “The logic of democracy does indeed imply a moment of closure which is required by the very process of constituting the ‘people’. This cannot be avoided, even in a liberal-democratic model; it can only be negotiated differently.” (D43)

And so: “Liberal-democratic politics consists… in the constant process of negotiation and renegotiation — through different hegemonic articulations — of this constitutive paradox.” (D45) There’s nothing ideal or inevitable about liberal democracy. It is just a contingent and hegemonic form of political power. As much as it likes to present itself as rational, consensual and inclusive of any reasonable objection, it is still power, and it still closes itself off against what it cannot accept. “To deny the existence of such a moment of closure, or to present the frontier as dictated by rationality or morality, is to naturalize what should be perceived as a contingent and temporary hegemonic articulation of ‘the people’ through a particular regime of inclusion-exclusion.” (D49) Consensus is created by eliminating pluralism from the public sphere.

Mouffe borrows some of her critique of liberal democracy from Schmitt, but then turns that critique against Schmitt as well. Schmitt wanted not only to critique but to abolish liberal democracy, and saw its paradoxical tensions as fatal. Mouffe sees them as productive. The tension between abstract individualism and the particularity of a people results in inventive compromises in political form. Schmitt could only imagine a people as a pre-existing identity.

Schmitt refused any place for pluralism within a construction of a people, for in Schmitt the people is a given, not a construction of hegemonic articulation. His conception of a people is pre-political, naturalistic, and essentialist. He might have understood Trump’s overt appeal to nativism, but not the more plural invocation of a people made by Sanders. He may not quite grasp how the other is an internal boundary that a polity constructs, rather than an external, pre-given one.

Mouffe turns her concept of the political against two rival kinds of theory: liberal and Marxist. I find it hard to take liberal political theory seriously, as it seems mostly to be idealized versions of, and justifications for, what exists, and thus to lack any theoretical energy or stringency. Nevertheless, her points against its various flavors have a certain urgency given the inability of liberal punditry to come to terms with either the Sanders or Trump phenomena.

The problem with both liberal (and post-liberal) political theories is that they have to ignore antagonism. They begin and end with a (usually) rationalist faith in the possibility of a (usually) universal consensus. This is conceived as a consensus of individuals, making it (often) hard to grasp the power of collective identity. Universal consensus based on reason has to banish not only antagonism but also the moment of decision.

Mouffe insists against Hannah Arendt that agonism is always a sublimated form of antagonism; against Jürgen Habermas that politics is more than inter-subjective agreement; against Bonnie Honig that conflict is more than an ongoing contest over identities and against William Connolly that politics is a hegemonic project, not a disturbing of attempts at closure. One might add, contra Judith Butler, that there is more to politics than performing vulnerable bodies together. Against theories of the people as one (liberalism), and against the theory of the people as multiple (post-liberalism), Mouffe insists on the people as divided.

Nor do models of deliberative democracy appeal, whether those of Habermas or John Rawls. These are unable to acknowledge antagonism, and want to reach consensus without exclusion on the common good. They eliminate passions from public sphere and cannot comprehend political identities as anything other than pathology. “Rather than binding all citizens to one another in an image of unity, the problems of the political common would pit some against others in a web of allegiances and conflicts.” (A57) She also rejects those such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens who want a third way beyond adversarial models of politics — a politics without politics.

Looking to the international sphere, Mouffe is against the illusion of a cosmopolitan world beyond sovereignty and hegemony that she attributes to David Held and Martha Nussbaum. But neither is she drawn to the sort of alt-cosmpolitanism of Homi Bhaba, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bruce Robbins, or James Clifford, to which we might add Kojin Karatani. They are trying to negotiate between cosmopolitan standards of abstract justice and specific forms of belonging. But where Mouffe finds the democratic paradox constructive, what we might call the cosmopolitan paradox is less compelling. “I do not really see the usefulness of trying to redefine the notion of cosmopolitanism to make it signify almost the opposite of its usual meaning…” (A21)

These rude summaries hardly do justice to Mouffe’s critical acumen, let alone the nuanced bodies of work to which they are applied. But I want to move past the liberal, post-liberal, cosmopolitan, and third way emulsions of political thinking quickly to get to Mouffe’s engagement with the Marxist tradition.

Mouffe first came to attention as co-author with the late Ernesto Laclau of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, 1985), a foundational text of what would become known as the Essex School of discourse analysis. That book worked its way through a series of classic Marxist positions on politics that tried to address the gap between the experience of Marxist militants, on the one hand, and a theory of politics rooted in class analysis on the other. On this reading, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and Georges Sorel are all permutations on solutions to the problem that the laws of capitalist development did not seem to result in a sharpening of class contradictions and a clarifying of political struggle down to open class antagonism.

Laclau and Mouffe rejected all three of the then prevalent Marxist formulations of the social formation. One of these sees the commodity form as an essence and political and cultural phenomena as appearances. Another sees the economic as a base whose laws of motion are reflected in political and economic superstructures. A third grants a relative autonomy to the political and cultural superstructures but sees the economic as determinate in the last instance. This last — the formulation of Louis Althusser — was the point of departure for Laclau and Mouffe. But they made the autonomy of the political from the economic absolute. They even went one further, in showing that the economic was itself political. The industrial workplace is a place of domination more than value-extraction.

In Laclau and Mouffe’s hands, the foundational categories of Marxist thought unravel. The development of the productive forces is not a neutral or causative historical trajectory. The economic is not governed by its own regularities. Nor does it create coherent class locations and proscribe for them determinate class interests. In place of the through-line of economic and historical development, they offered instead a contingent and political time.

Here Antonio Gramsci’s category of hegemony became key: There is only a hegemonic order that produces a always incomplete construction of political power. Particularly in Mouffe’s later work, the Marxist ontology of the social and historical organization for the satisfaction of needs is replaced by a political ontology of a primal antagonism. Mouffe: “If our approach has been called ‘post-Marxist’, it is precisely because we have challenged the type of ontology subjacent to such a conception.” (A78)

From this point of view, Mouffe became a telling critic of certain attempts to revive Marxist or communist thinking. Mouffe: “The main shortcoming of the Marxist approach lies in the inability to acknowledge the crucial role of what I call ‘the political.’… [T]he emancipatory project can no longer be conceived of as the elimination of power and the management of common affairs by social agents identified with the viewpoint of the social totality. There will always be antagonism, struggles, and division of the social, and the need for institutions to deal with them will never disappear.”

She resists Slavoj Zizek’s attempt to revive communism in the guise of a kind of via negativa, as impossible goal. Alain Badiou’s related version of communism she sees as a strange example of an ethical politics. Contra Arendt, Badiou does not think politics as a sphere of contending arguments. On the contrary, it is a singular relation to a truth event that produces a subject. The event is beyond matters of both fact and concern. It calls a subject into being who is faithful to something beyond them, an interruption of the real. But where Mouffe thinks this an ethics, one might ask if it is instead not rather theological, a leap of faith into the absurd.

Mouffe dismisses these kinds of (anti)politics quickly, but reserves rather more time for distancing herself from the various versions of autonomist or workerist Marxism, such as those of Hardt and Negri or Paolo Virno. These renounce the struggle for a counter-hegemony through existing institutions and propose instead an exodus or withdrawal from them. Theirs is an ontology in which what is given is not conflict but self-organization. In place of the self-organization of united labor, they imagine the self-organization of a differentiating multitude, which only needs to shed a parasitic capital to come into its own.

This line of thought is sometimes based on exactly the kind of analysis of changes in the forces and relations of production that Mouffe had already ruled out. Thus, the evolution of industrial organization from Fordist manufacturing to post-Fordist information industries is a mutation in the mode of production, which is now based on immaterial, affective, communicative and cooperative labor. Power is organized less through disciplinary institutions and more as control built into the social field directly. This society of control extends beyond the nation-state into a space of non-territorial empire. Political sovereignty now takes the form of bio-political power over the production of life itself.

Both this economy and this polity are actually reactions to the power of the self-organizing multitude, the only active agency the workerists acknowledge, in its newly emergent forms of the mass intellectual, immaterial labor, or the general intellect. These multitudes called empire into being. Empire is the means via which the ruling class contains the unruly energies of self-organization itself. Advances in the means of production have brought the possibility of self-organization closer within the multitude’s reach. The multitude’s self-organizing power cannot be represented. It can’t be contained within the general will. Its only political option is civil disobedience, and forms of non-representative, extra-parliamentary power.

Against the strategy of withdrawal, Mouffe insists on a strategy of engagement. She insists on a theory of political hegemony not of the forces of production. For her what is primary is not a monism of productive and creative activity but a dualism of antagonism that cannot be reconciled. Capital has far more than a reactive role in her view. The current form of the social formation is not a product of the development of the forces of production alone but of a particular moment of hegemonic articulation. It arrived perhaps as “hegemony through neutralization” or a “passive revolution.” via which the ruling class coopted forces that threatened to escape it. (73) Against the seeming naturalness of the unity of the multitude, it is only through a counter-hegemonic project, creating both an us and a them, that a coherent political actor can appear. Politics is a matter of forging a chain of equivalence made by designating something as other. Against immanence and multiplicity Mouffe thinks of radical negativity and hegemony.

Here I wonder if it is possible to borrow a bit from both perspectives, but render them coherent through a somewhat different theoretical formulation. A place one might start is with Mouffe’s attempt to exclude the economic domain, and indeed to make the economic turn on the stuff of politics: the workplace as a place of domination rather than value extraction. Here I want to reverse the thought, and argue that Mouffe’s ontology of the political is still in part about something economic. The symptom of this is in that which forges the equality of a people as a demos: that they share in a substance. It turns out that what is at stake in politics is still the question of the social satisfaction of needs. Hence it might not be enough to think about the paradoxical relation between liberty and equality, one might need to think also about fraternity — which one might render now in less gendered terms as the commons. Or rather: liberalism and democracy has to confront the problem of social labor. Donna Haraway uses the word companion for this, meaning those who share bread.

If against Mouffe one might resist the collapse of everything into an ontology of the political, against the workerists one might resist the collapse of everything into the self-production of the multitude. Mouffe: “in order to challenge neo-liberalism, it is necessary to engage with its key institutions. It is not enough to organize new forms of existence of the common, outside the dominant capitalist structures, as if the latter would progressively ebb away without any confrontation.” (115)

For the workerists, there is really only a productive class — workers, multitude — and a parasitic one. In Mouffe there are two classes — labor versus capital — and a host of social movements and other nonclass actors. But what if one thought from the beginning of more than two class actors? There is another way to read the Marxist tradition of political writings, which would make the peasant question central. Labor came to organizational consciousness at a time when there were two ruling classes — capitalists and landlords — and two subordinate classes — worker and farmer. Indeed, part of the subtlety of Gramsci’s thought has to do with thinking hegemony as the articulation of more than two class positions, before he even gets to other social actors. One might ask again if there are multiple subordinate and dominant classes — including new ones.

Here one might expand the concept of hegemony using a more classically structuralist device. Rather than the political as an irreducible antagonism between two non-equivalent terms, one might more modestly think a politics of four classes and the four rather than two kinds of relation. To the friend and the enemy, one might add the rather more interesting categories of the non-friend and non-enemy. It was within something like the square of those four possibilities that social democracy tried to think the peasant question. Today one might think new kinds of ruling and subordinate classes beyond labor and capital.

It is one thing to use such a semiotic technique to understand social phenomena. It is another to insist that all phenomena are language-based. Here one has to wonder about the usefulness of a concept of the political that seems to have excluded war, on the one hand; and labor, on the other — not to mention non-linguistic modes of practicing knowledge. It may be partly the case that “Nowadays, to buy something is to enter into a specific world, to become part of an imagined community.” (90) But as Maurizio Lazzarato argues, modern production methods turn out subjects just as much as objects, and their organization may be coded but is barely linguistic.

The claim for an ontology of the political, whose radical negativity is an effect of the incompleteness of language, has the effect of foreclosing in advance a more radical pluralism, in which non-political forms of power, knowledge, or institution might play a role. Thus there is something a bit unsatisfactory about Mouffe’s comments on Bruno Latour. She wants to rescue some version of critique from Latour’s claim that it has run out of steam, but her version of critique insists on radical negativity as a kind of essentialism in negative.

It is indeed the case, contra Latour, that not all versions of critique assert a primary distinction between nature and culture, in which nature, objectivity and reality are juxtaposed in advance against culture, subjectivity and appearances. But Mouffe has cut herself off from those parts of the Marxist tradition which thought about critique outside this divide. However, her insistence that Latour’s project of composing a common world ducks the question of antagonism is well-taken, even if one remains skeptical of the ontological grandeur with which Mouffe wants to decorate it. Mouffe’s a priori claim that there is an “antagonistic dimension which is inherent to all human societies” is not the radical break with a Marxist essentialism of labor that she imagines. (A2) It is rather the same essentialism in negative.

There are some more radical encounters one could imagine for Mouffe’s ontology of the political. One would be Charles Fourier, who tried to write the possibility of the complete absence of antagonism. What is instructive in such an attempt is how, like Mouffe, his focus is on the passions rather than reason, but unlike Mouffe it is also about the passions as kinds of need. The other encounter might be to think Mouffe in relation to Johan Huizinga. This might appear a strange choice, but Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens explicitly against both Carl Schmitt and the Marxists. It makes no ontological claims, but it offers a much wider concept of the agonistic, in which the political is just one of the many forms that evolved for its display.

One can only agree with Mouffe that “the current crisis is civilizational” and her call for a “post-social-democratic ecological project.” (61) As the heightened refugee crisis makes manifest, climate change is a novel historical scenario in which “a truly Gramscian ‘intellectual and moral reform’ is called for…” (63) But it is one that might take rather more pluralism than Mouffe acknowledges, including a pluralism not just of political formations but of knowledge formations, none of which can claim to speak for a singular ontological ground.

While Mouffe dismisses in a sentence the famous slogan of Occupy Wall Street, “we are the 99%” — perhaps there is some promise in the way it was taken up and expanded in the Sanders campaign. It identified an us and a them open to more than merely moral clucking about the rich. Sanders was able to forge a chain of equivalence among a number of democratic demands by identifying the ruling class as antagonist, responsible not just for austerity but also for the unchecked hell-horses of the Anthropocene.

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