Takedown! Takedown—two points!

26 09 2008

Some seriously unhappy things happening with the cats. It will be fixed, but in the meantime, grrrrrr.

So I was reading Chantal Mouffe’s The Return of the Political, and I thought, Hm, she might be able to help, after all. She is of the agoniste school of democratic theorists, that is, among those who believe that politics is less about deliberation (Guttmann & Thompson) or ideal speech situations (Habermas) than about plurality, conflict, and constant risks and possibilities of democratic engagement. Jeffrey Isaac has written cogently on this (Democracy in Dark Times), as has Judith Butler, albeit somewhat less cogently (Precarious Life). Arendt fits here, I think, as does Vattimo. (And not-so-far in the background, as Mouffe points out, is Carl Schmitt. Brrr.)

Blah blah, enough with the name dropping: how does it help? Because it reminds me that I’ve been writing as if Lucretia’s comment signalled some kind of crisis in democratic thinking. And it does—of liberal democratic theory. (n.b.: Mouffe does not herself reject liberal democracy, just the consensus modes dominant within it.)There’s a lot worth exploring in liberal democratic theory, but Mouffe reminds me there’s more to democratic theory than liberalism, and, by extension, more than ‘respect’ amongst political actors.  I think I was headed back in that direction anyway, but having her scowl at me and point the way was useful. (I’m being only a little melodramatic: she’s staring straight at the camera—and frowning—in her publicity shot.)

Anyway, I don’t know that Lucretia was really asking about radical democratic theory, but I think that’s the place to find a decent response to her initial question. Mouffe notes that ‘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. . . . 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.’ [emph in the original, p. 4]. Yes. Very ‘disagree-but-defend-your-right-to-the-death.’

In other words, the lack of respect is not a crisis, is not necessarily even a problem. If there is to be conflict, there the question is how to live with it. Some might seek to suppress it, others to deliberate it away; the agonistes, however, note that it is simply a condition of human existence, and to rid ourselves of conflict is to rid ourselves of. . . us. Thus, while consensus-liberal theorists (and I included the deliberatives among this large and varied group) consider tolerance too thin a mat on which to roll around with our problems, Mouffe says, pfft, it’s enough. The point is not to avoid bruises; the point is to continue the wrestling, i.e., to continue the politics.

There are many worse things than the hurt or anger which arise out of political disagreement. What, after all, are the alternatives to [a democratic] politics?