Introduction to "Law and Agonistic Politics"
University of Exeter
The concept of the agōn, meaning struggle, comes to Anglo-American political theory from the Ancient Greeks via nineteenth-century Germany. Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burkhardt, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault both refer to agonism to conceptualize the conditions and possibilities of political freedom. In turn, contemporary political theorists such as William Connolly, Bonnie Honig, Chantal Mouffe, David Owen and James Tully turn to agonism for an alternative normative vocabulary to that of deliberation and communicative rationality, which has tended to dominate recent debates about democratic legitimacy. Beyond emphasizing the unavoidability of conflict and its importance for sustaining democratic politics, agonistic conceptions of politics are distinguished by their emphasis on the strategic, affective and aesthetic aspects of politics, together with the normative significance of these for democratic praxis. Agonistic thinkers share a well-rehearsed critique of theories of deliberative democracy, which are charged with depoliticizing social conflict by representing it in terms of an anticipated or counter-factual consensus. Whereas deliberative democracy establishes the legitimacy of democratic procedures by appeal to the meta-political ideal of consensus, agonistic approaches typically insist that the democratic contest can and should go all the way down to include the principles and procedures that are supposed to regulate political life. Rather than focus on the agonistic critique of deliberative democracy, however, this book explores the differences between various conceptualizations of agonism, engaging critically with the assumptions that underpin them. In particular, three strands of agonism (by no means mutually exclusive) emerge from the chapters herein: pragmatic, expressivist and strategic. Pragmatic arguments about the normative significance of agonism, as made by Chantal Mouffe, are essentially twofold. The agon motivates people to participate in politics by making available a clear choice between Left and Right in terms of which a decision can be made. As such, agonism is essential for a vibrant democracy. Furthermore, agonism serves to defuse potential antagonisms by providing a legitimate outlet for political grievances, guarding against the return of the political in the guise of political extremism. Expressivist theories of agonism, exemplified by Connolly, emphasize the value of struggle in sustaining freedom and plurality and resisting social identities that may be experienced as oppressive. The agon is celebrated as a never-ending play of differences, which resists the homogenizing drive for social unity, enabling plurality to flourish. A strategic agonism, as advocated by Rancière, understands struggle as oriented to overcoming social exclusion. The agon thus does not occur between co-citizens but between first- and second-class citizens, between those who are included and those excluded, and it seeks to abolish the social inequalities between them.
© 'Law and Agonistic Politics', Andrew Schaap (ed), 2009, Ashgate. Details of the definitive version are available at http://www.ashgate.com. Chapter is author's post-print version.
In: Schaap, A. (ed.) 'Law and Agonistic Politics' Farnham: Ashgate, pp.1-13