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For an Agonistic Pluralism

The introduction to Chantal Mouffe's The Return of the Political, a critique of liberal democracy's inability to understand the problems of ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts.

Chantal Mouffe 1 April 2020

For an Agonistic Pluralism

Our new set of Radical Thinkers, a series of seminal works of philosophy and theory, have just been released, with beautiful new editions of books by Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Nancy Fraser, Jean Baudrillard and Chantal Mouffe.

Below is an excerpt from the introduction to Chantal Mouffe's The Return of the Political.

The trick is not to fool oneself about certain things: small rocky islands in the sea of self-deception. Clutching them and not drowning is the utmost that a human being achieves. – Elias Canetti


Not long ago we were being told, to the accompaniment of much fanfare, that liberal democracy had won and that history had ended. Alas, far from having produced a smooth transition to pluralist democracy, the collapse of Communism seems, in many places, to have opened the way to a resurgence of nationalism and the emergence of new antagonisms. Western democrats view with astonishment the explosion of manifold ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts that they thought belonged to a bygone age. Instead of the heralded ‘New World Order’, the victory of universal values, and the generalization of ‘post-conventional’ identities, we are witnessing an explosion of particularisms and an increasing challenge to Western universalism.

Taken by surprise by such a convincing refutation of their optimistic forecasts, many liberals have reacted by evoking the deferred effects of totalitarianism or a new upsurge of ‘the archaic’. They respond as if it represented only a temporary delay on the road that necessarily leads to the universalization of liberal democracy: a short parenthesis before rationality reimposes its order, or a last desperate cry of the political before it is definitively destroyed by the forces of law and universal reason.

Because it is indeed the political which is at stake here, and the possibility of its elimination. And it is the incapacity of liberal thought to grasp its nature and the irreducible character of antagonism that explains the impotence of most political theorists in the current situation – an impotence that, at a time of profound political change, could have devastating consequences for democratic politics.


This evasion of the political could, I believe, jeopardize the hard-won conquests of the democratic revolution, which is why, in the essays included in this volume, I take issue with the conception of politics that informs a great deal of democratic thinking today. This conception can be characterized as rationalist, universalist and individualist. I argue that its main shortcoming is that it cannot but remain blind to the specificity of the political in its dimension of conflict/decision, and that it cannot perceive the constitutive role of antagonism in social life. With the demise of Marxism, the illusion that we can finally dispense with the notion of antagonism has become widespread. This belief is fraught with danger, since it leaves us unprepared in the face of unrecognized manifestations of antagonism.

In an attempt to bring a much-needed corrective to that liberal vision, several pieces below engage with the work of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy constitutes, in my view, a challenge that we cannot ignore. Yet I also think that, by revealing the deficiencies off liberalism, he can help us – unwittingly – to identify the issues that need to be addressed and thereby to gain a better understanding of the} nature of modern democracy. My objective is to think with Schmitt, against Schmitt, and to use his insights in order to strengthen liberal democracy against his critiques. By drawing our attention to the centrality of the friend/enemy relation in politics, Schmitt makes unaware of the dimension of the political that is linked to the existence of an element of hostility among human beings. This can take many forms and manifest itself in very different types of social relations. This is an important idea, which I have tried to reformulate within the framework of the contemporary critique of essentialism that I take to constitute the most fruitful theoretical approach to pluralist democracy.

When we accept that every identity is relational and that the condition of existence of every identity is the affirmation of a difference, the determination of an ‘other’ that is going to play the role of a ‘constitutive outside’, it is possible to understand how antagonisms arise. In the domain of collective identifications, where what is in question is the creation of a ‘we’ by the delimitation of a ‘them’, the possibility always exists that this we/them relation will turn into a relation of the friend/enemy type; in other words, it can always become political in Schmitt's understanding of the term. This can happen when the other, who was until then considered only under the mode of difference, begins to be perceived as negating our identity, as putting in question our very existence. From that moment onwards, any type of we/them relation, be it religious, ethnic, national, economic or other, becomes the site of a political antagonism.

As a consequence, the political cannot be restricted to a certain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific sphere or level of society. It must be conceived as a dimension that is inherent to every human society and that determines our very ontological condition. Such a view of the political is profoundly at odds with liberal thought, which is precisely the reason for the bewilderment of this thought when confronted with the phenomenon of hostility in its multiple forms. This is particularly evident in its incomprehension of political movements, which are seen as the expression of the so-called ‘masses’. Since they cannot be apprehended in individualistic terms, these movements are usually relegated to the pathological or deemed to be the expression of irrational forces. Witness, for instance, the incapacity of liberal theorists to come to terms within the phenomenon of fascism.


On the eve of the twenty-first century, our societies are undergoing a deep process of redefinition of their collective identities and experiencing the establishment of new political frontiers. This is linked to the collapse of Communism and the disappearance of the democracy/totalitarianism opposition that, since the Second World War, had provided the main political frontier enabling discrimination between friend and enemy. This disappearance confronts us with a double situation:

1 In the former Communist bloc, the unity created in the common struggle against Communism has vanished and the friend/enemy frontier is taking a multiplicity of new forms linked to the resurgence of old antagonisms – ethnic, national, religious and others.

2 In the West, it is the very identity of democracy which is at stake, insofar as it has depended to a large extent on the existence of the Communist ‘other’ that constituted its negation. Now that the enemy has been defeated, the meaning of democracy itself has become blurred and needs to be redefined by the creation of a new frontier. This is much more difficult for the moderate right and for the left than for the radical right. For the latter has already found its enemy. It is provided by the ‘enemy within’, the immigrants, which are presented by the different movements of the extreme right as a threat to the cultural identity and national sovereignty of the ‘true’ Europeans. I submit that the growth of the extreme right in several countries in Europe can only be understood in the context of the deep crisis of political identity that confronts liberal democracy following the loss of the traditional landmarks of politics. It is linked to the necessity of redrawing the political frontier between friend and enemy.


We are in a conjuncture where the incapacity of liberalism to apprehend the political could have very serious consequences. All those who believed that the fall of Communism would necessarily be followed by the establishment of pluralist democracy, and that the destruction of the old antagonist could only herald a great advance for democracy, are quite unable to understand the specificity of the new situation. For that reason, it is vital that we abandon a theoretical perspective that prevents us coming to terms with the nature of the tasks before us.

Once we accept the necessity of the political and the impossibility of a world without antagonism, what needs to be envisaged is how it is possible under those conditions to create or maintain a pluralistic democratic order. Such an order is based on a distinction between ‘enemy’ and ‘adversary’. It requires that, within the context of the political community, the opponent should be considered not as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated. We will fight against his ideas but we will not question his right to defend them. The category of the ‘enemy ‘does not disappear but is displaced; it remains pertinent with respect to those who do not accept the democratic ‘rules of the game’ and who thereby exclude themselves from the political community.

Liberal democracy requires consensus on the rules of the game, but it also calls for the constitution of collective identities around clearly differentiated positions and the possibility of choosing between real alternatives. This ‘agonistic pluralism’ is constitutive of modern democracy and, rather than seeing it as a threat, we should realize that it represents the very condition of existence of such democracy.

Nikolas Lohmann has argued that the specificity of liberal democracy as a political system is the ‘splitting of the summit’ – the distinction between government and opposition. He specifies that ‘This prenup-poses a corresponding binary oppositional programming – e.g. Conservative/progressive or, since that does not work anymore, restrictive/expansive welfare state policies or, if the economy does not permit this, then ecological versus economic preferences, Only in this way can possible directions of the political course be put to choice.’[1] This means that the current blurring of political frontiers between left and right is harmful for democratic politics, as it impedes the constitution of distinctive political identities. This in turn fosters disaffection towards political parties and discourages participation in the political process. Hence the growth of other collective identities around religious, nationalist or ethnic forms of identification.

This confirms, as Schmitt has pointed out, that antagonisms can take many forms, and it is illusory to believe they could ever be eliminated. In those circumstances, it is preferable to give them a political outlet within a pluralistic democratic system. The great strength of liberal democracy, pace Schmitt, is precisely that it provides the institutions that, if properly understood, can shape the element of hostility in a way that defuses its potential. Indeed, as Elias Canetti shows in Crowds and Power, the parliamentary system exploits the psychological structure of struggling armies and should be conceived as a struggle in which the contending parties renounce the killing of each other and accept the verdict of the majority on who has won. According to him, ‘[T]he actual vote is decisive, as the moment in which the one is really measured against the other. Itis all that is theft of the original lethal clash and it is played out in many forms, with threats, abuse and physical provocation which may lead to blows or missiles. But the counting of the vote ends the battle.[2] If we accept such a view, it follows that parties can play an important role in giving expression to social division and the conflict of wills. But if they fail in their job, conflicts will assume other guises and it will be more difficult to manage them democratically.


The illusion of consensus and unanimity, as well as the calls for ‘anti-politics’, should be recognized as being fatal for democracy and therefore abandoned. The absence of a political frontier, far from being sign of political maturity, is the symptom of a void that can endanger democracy, because that void provides a terrain that can be occupied by the extreme right to articulate new antidemocratic political identities. When there is a lack of democratic political struggles with which to identify, their place is taken by other forms of identification, of ethnic, nationalist or religious nature, and the opponent is defined in those terms too. In such conditions, the opponent cannot be perceived as an adversary to contend with, but only as an enemy to be destroyed. This is precisely what a pluralist democracy must avoid; yet it can only protect itself against such a situation by recognizing the nature of the political instead of denying its existence.

To acknowledge that ‘the state of nature’ in its Hobbesian dimension can never be completely eradicated but only controlled, throws a different light on the status of democracy. Far from being the necessary result of a moral evolution of humankind, democracy is something uncertain and improbable and must never be taken for granted. It is an always fragile conquest that needs to be defended as well as deepened. There is no threshold of democracy that once reached will guarantee its continued existence. Democracy is in peril not only when there is insufficient consensus and allegiance to the values it embodies, but also when its agonistic dynamic is hindered by an apparent excess of consensus, which usually masks a disquieting apathy. It is also endangered by the growing marginalization of entire groups whose status as an ‘underclass’ practically puts them outside the political community.

When, as is the case today, liberal democracy is increasingly identified with ‘actually existing liberal democratic capitalism’, and its political dimension is restricted to the rule of law, there is a risk that the excluded may join fundamentalist movements or become attracted to antiliberal, populist forms of democracy. A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests. If such is missing, it can too easily be replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities.


Nowadays, the crucial issue is how to establish a new political frontier capable of giving a real impulse to democracy. I believe that this requires redefining the left as a horizon where the many different struggles against subordination could find a space of inscription. The notion of a radical democratic citizenship is crucial here because it could provide a form of identification that enables the establishment of a common political identity among diverse democratic struggles. There are currently many attempts on the left to recover the idea of citizenship but, as I argue in several pieces below, it is important not to aim at a neutral conception of citizenship applicable to all members of the political community. This is why, while being attentive to its critique of liberal individualism, I am wary of many aspects of the communitarian approach. Its rejection of pluralism and defense of a substantive idea of the ‘common good’ represents, in my view, another way of evading the ineluctability of antagonism. There will always be competing interpretations of the political principles of liberal democracy, and the meanings of liberty and equality will never cease to be contested. Citizenship is vital for democratic politics, but a modern democratic theory must make room for competing conceptions of our identities as citizens.

From different angles, the essays collected here all seek to develop various aspects of the project of ‘radical and plural democracy’ put forward in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.[3] In stressing the centrality of the idea of pluralism for modern democracy, I recognize the latter’s debt to the liberal tradition. One of my main theses, though, is that in order to develop fully the potentialities of the liberal ideals of individual freedom and personal autonomy, we need to dissociate them from the other discourses to which they have been articulated and to rescue political liberalism from its association with economic liberalism.

I argue that, in order to radicalize the idea of pluralism, so as to make it a vehicle for a deepening of the democratic revolution, we have to break with rationalism, individualism and universalism. Only on that condition will it be possible to apprehend the multiplicity of forms of subordination that exist in social relations and to provide a framework for the articulation of the different democratic struggles – around gender, race, class, sexuality, environment and others. This does not imply the rejection of any idea of rationality, individuality or universality, but affirms that they are necessarily plural, discursively constructed and entangled with power relations. It means acknowledging the existence of the political in its complexity: the dimension of the ‘we’, the construction of the friend's side, as well as the dimension of the ‘them’, the constitutive aspect of antagonism. This is why such pluralism must also be distinguished from the postmodern conception of the fragmentation of the social, which refuses to grant the fragments any kind of relational identity. The perspective I maintain consistently rejects any kind of essentialism –either of the totality or of the elements – and affirms that neither the totality nor the fragments possess any kind of fixed identity, prior to the contingent and pragmatic form of their articulation.

It is because it does not try to negate the political that, contrary to other conceptions of radical or participatory democracy informed by a universalistic and rationalist framework, the view I am advocating here is truly one of radical and plural democracy. It is the only conception that draws the full implications of the ‘pluralism of values’ and confronts the consequences of acknowledging the permanence of conflict and antagonism. From such a standpoint, conflicts are not seen as disturbances that unfortunately cannot be eliminated, as empirical impediments that render impossible the full realization of harmony due to the fact that we will never completely coincide with our rational. universal self. For a radical and plural democracy, the belief that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible, even if envisaged as an asymptotic approach to the regulative ideal of a free and unconstrained communication, as in Habermas, far from providing the necessary horizon of the democratic project, is something that puts it at risk.

Central to this approach is the awareness that a pluralist democracy contains a paradox, since the very moment of its realization would see its disintegration. It should be conceived as a good that only exists as good so long as it cannot be reached. Such a democracy will therefore always be a democracy ‘to come’, as conflict and antagonism are at the same time its condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of its full realization.

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1. Nikolas Luhmann, ‘The Future of Democracy’, Thesis Eleven, no. 26, 1990, p. 51.
2. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, London 1973, p. 220.
3. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London 1985.

The Return of the Political
Chantal Mouffe is one of the most influential political theorists at work today. Her work has influenced political parties across Europe and continues to inform the direction of left politics. In t...

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