Much contemporary political theory and practice seeks to overcome conflict in the name of greater consensus. Party politicians are always seeking to find ways of side stepping conflict and promoting a newfound consensus. Think for example of New Labour’s ‘Third Way’, that wanted to rise above long-standing fault lines between left and right, or David Cameron’s assertion that we all have an equal stake in the ‘Big Society’.
For theorists of ‘agonistic democracy’ these claims are both false and dangerous. The aspiration towards consensus is phony because it fails to acknowledge that agonism – from the Greek agon meaning contest or strife – is the life blood of politics, and they are dangerous because by denying or downplaying the reality of conflict in society, they effectively mask and protect the power of the privileged.
This does not mean that all forms of conflict are a public good. Indeed, numerous examples of sectarian or ethnic violence provide clear evidence to the contrary. However, it does mean that we need to think creatively and intelligently about how to stage political differences, and we shouldn’t see consensus, mutual agreement, and such like as necessarily the aim or the outcome of democratic politics.
This agonistic orientation to political life is shared by a number of prominent contemporary theorists, and is prefigured by some big names in continental theory such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt. Amongst the most significant of the contemporary theorists of agonistic democracy is Bonnie Honig, who is Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University in the United States. In April of this year the Nottingham Centre for Normative Political Theory hosted a two day conference on Honig’s work, in which she was keynote speaker. This was an engaging event, in which numerous political theorists came together, as they do, to argue the toss about the nuances of agonistic theory.
In my contribution to this debate I argued that we need to think carefully about where the most important forms of political contest are located today. My sense is that theorists of agonistic democracy – Honig included – tend to focus exclusively on forms of political disagreement that can mostly be contained within the basic framework of existing liberal democratic institutions. They typically point to new social movements – feminist struggles, gay rights politics, civil-rights campaign etc – as exemplary of agonistic politics.
These forms of struggle are, of course, hugely significant; they have repeatedly challenged various forms of hierarchy and exclusion in western societies and brought about widespread changes since the late 1960s. However, there is, I think, a real danger in taking new social movement politics as the only legitimate form of political contest, because this grants a certain authority to western systems of government as they exist today. In this sense, the theorists of agonistic democracy have been complicit in the idea of the ‘end of history’ – the idea that there are no more credible alternatives to western liberal democracy – that became prominent after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
By way of contrast I assert that we should hold open the possibility of more radical changes in the existing system of government; that we should hang onto the struggle for emancipation that has motivated in the past the various movements associated with big revolutionary upheavals. This view is partly inspired by the Marxist tradition, but Marxists do not have a monopoly on the theory and practice of revolution. Think, for example, of the views of John Locke, or of Thomas Jefferson who said ‘God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion’. Indeed, Arendt herself wrote a really good book in which she spoke about the ‘lost treasure of revolution’.
If she were alive today she would no doubt be heartened by the recent mobilisations in Egypt and across North Africa and the Middle East. Contemporary theorists of agonistic democracy should also take heed of these events, as evidence of the power of collective democratic agency and the aspiration for more systematic forms of change.
PS: You can also check out Professor Honig on YouTube talking very eloquently about Greek tragedy.