Agonism is a political theory which emphasises the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict. It accepts a permanent place for such conflict, but seeks to show how we might accept and channel this positively. For this reason, agonists are especially concerned to intervene in debates about democracy. The tradition is also referred to as agonistic pluralism.

Agonism and other traditions in political thought

Agonists are sceptical about the capacity of politics to eliminate, overcome or circumvent deep divisions within our society - of class, culture, gender, ideology and so on. As such, they find liberalism, communitarianism and multiculturalism wanting. These theories - which have been the backbone of political theory for the past thirty years - are essentially optimistic about the possibility of finding a harmonious and peaceful pattern of political and social cooperation. Agonists, then, both claim that this optimism is unjustified and, hence, re-orientate political theory to another question: how should we deal with irreducible difference? In the view of agonists, proponents of the aforementioned traditions, in keeping their eyes fixed on forms of utopian cooperation, have failed to respond usefully to the messiness of contemporary political practice.

Agonism is also opposed to an important strand in the Marxist conception of politics known as 'materialism'. Marx would have agreed with the agonists that society had always been full of conflict, when he wrote: 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' He also thought that the causes of conflict were inescapable features of present - i.e. capitalist - society. But, in his view, history would develop in such a way as to eventually destroy capitalism, and replace it with a harmonious society - which was his conception of communism. Especially during the 1960s and '70s many people, academics included, subscribed to a roughly Marxist analysis. Since then, many of those people have come to the view that the 'materialist conception of history' does not give sufficient reason for hope about a harmonious society to come. Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are amongst those who have come to agonism from a background in Marxism and the social movements of the middle part of the last century

Thus, agonism can be seen as a response to the perceived failures of strands of idealism and materialism to accord with reality, and to provide useful responses to contemporary problems. It can also, in some sense, be seen as a development of theories which emphasised, even celebrated conflict, in a potentially less sensitive and responsible manner than agonism. For examples, see Carl Schmitt's essay The Concept of the Political and certain readings of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. In any case, it is clear that any conception of the political which involves a celebration of conflict may entail an endorsement of the domination of some portion of society over others. Agonism, in opposition to any such trend, is avowedly pluralist in its political outlook. It sees political tensions as having an essential place in society, but believes that they should be approached discursively, not in an attempt to eliminate 'the other'.

Agonism, the role of conflict, and democracy

Agonists believe that we should design democracy so as to optimise the opportunity for people to express their disagreements. However, they also maintain, we should not assume that conflict can be eliminated given sufficient time for deliberation and rational agreement. In other words, conflict has a non-rational or emotional component. These two positions mean that they are opposed to aspects of consociational and deliberative theories of democracy. The former, because it wants to mute conflict through elite consensus, the latter because it gives a rationalist picture of the aspirations of democracy.

Chantal Mouffe says, 'I use the concept of agonistic pluralism to present a new way to think about democracy which is different from the traditional liberal conception of democracy as a negotiation among interests and is also different from the model which is currently being developed by people like Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls. While they have many differences, Rawls and Habermas have in common the idea that the aim of the democratic society is the creation of a consensus, and that consensus is possible if people are only able to leave aside their particular interests and think as rational beings. However, while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.'

Agonism, not antagonism

Agonism is not simply the undifferentiated celebration of antagonism:

Bonnie Honig, perhaps agonism's most prominent advocate, writes: 'to affirm the perpetuity of the contest is not to celebrate a world without points of stabilization; it is to affirm the reality of perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting, and to identify the affirmative dimension of contestation.' (Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p15)

Writers in the agonist tradition

Writers who have identified as agonist or as agonistic pluralists

Writers who have inspired contemporary agonists

External links

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