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'.
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.'
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)
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