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Chantal Mouffe, "Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically".

Chantal Mouffe, "Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically," London and New York, Verso (201f3)

The critique of rationalism and universalism has ushered in a powerful alternative to the evaluation of political practices. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Post-Marxist Discourse Theory continues to dominate the academic literature with its masterful deconstruction/interpretation of Gramscian thought. This particular strand of contemporary political theory distinguishes itself from its rationalist/deliberative counterpart by emphasizing the critical importance of identity and processes of political identification, which can never offer a complete closure to the Real or, put differently, an unchanging image of society. On these shifting societal grounds political demands and identity-based coalitions will always stage a competition not only over resources, but also over the definition of the "we," a community's collective identity.

Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically is Chantal Mouffe's latest book. Published in 2013, this collection of essays reviews and updates some of Mouffe's previous public lectures and conferences on the topics of Agonism and democratic politics. Agonistics does not bring in that sense anything new to the table, but clarifies key concepts of Chantal Mouffe's thought and evaluates the significance of her approach for several contemporary issues relevant for the European Left. Rejoining contemporary discussions about the nature of the political and politics, Mouffe justifies her conviction that democracy can be redefined in a way more suitable to man's basic impulses. The book explores Mouffe's version of agonistic theory by setting it apart from other variants (Chapter 1), putting forward the thesis that hegemonic orders are inevitable and analyzing its consequences for international relations (Chapter 2), assessing the potential for agonistic democracy in the European Union (Chapter 3), offering a critique of the Italian school of radical politics (Chapter 4), and advocating the emancipatory role of artistic practices, which can foster change in the context of agonistic politics (Chapter 5).

Chantal Mouffe's approach to Agonism posits as central the concept of antagonism. Grounding her theory on the assumption of antagonism's ineradicability, Mouffe redefines democratic politics as agonistic pluralism. She fleshes out in this way her own political project by offering a 'metaphoric redescription' of liberal democratic institutions (2) and an alternative to other contemporary appoaches to democracy. Her conceptual usage of "antagonism" is rooted in the Derriderian notion of difference and draws on Jacques Derrida's explanation of how the creation of an identity necessarily implies a relation of opposition. Bringing this insight to the analysis of politics, Mouffe concludes that the creation of a "we"-collective identity is always premised on the existence of the excluded "they." Politics is therefore a competition between rival hegemonic projects. The "enemy" however can and should become, in a radical understanding of democratic pluralism, a legitimate "adversary." Antagonisms can be transformed into Agonisms. Only in this way are practices of political exclusion tamed and democratic institutions reformed.

Translated to International Relations, this proposal implies that "liberalism" and "democracy" need not be adopted together. If "democracy" as a system of political organization should be promoted internationally, the same is not valid for the Western model of "liberal democracy." Shared procedural principles should guide rather the interactions of competing regional hegemons, which themselves could be structured around different interpretations of values. Mouffe's analysis of the problems besetting the European Union (EU) goes in a similar direction. The London-based political theorist argues that this unique project of political and economic integration must redefine itself along agonistic lines in order to survive. An agonistic Europe a la Mouffe promotes the (re)politicization of European politics and the emergence of a multiplicity of public spheres. This institutional reform proposal would eventually trigger a fragmentation of European governance even more radical than the idea of a Europe of Regions. In this new political context, the European Left should arguably intervene in order to offer viable policy alternatives to Neoliberalism, such as an enlightened European protectionism coupled with the large scale promotion of environmentally friendly lifestyle changes. Mouffe's survey of the Leftist alternative to contemporary Neoliberalism leads her however to the conclusion that, unfortunately, abandonment and not engagement has been so far the preferred strategy. Radical political theorists of the Post-Operaism school have translated political action into refusal to join democratic politics and, in general, any public sphere generated by the State. Mouffe criticizes Post-Operaist philosophers Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno for meshing together their absolute mistrust of contemporary political institutions with a messianic vision of the Absolute Democracy reminiscent of the advent of Communism in Classical Marxism. Her Agonism challenges therefore the New Left for its alleged positivism and wariness in acknowledging the construction, not pre-constitution, of political identities. Finally, the artistic field holds the key to political regeneration. This interpretation goes rather against the grain of more popular views of art as a field completely taken over by consumerism. Contrary to what some art critics interpret as the subjugation of culture by the capitalist mode of production, Mouffe believes that critical art qua artivism plays an important role in the emergence of new counter-hegemonic political projects. The linkage between art and politics is a productive-critical one, with the artist becoming, through the nature of his work, a political activist.

As a former Leftist political activist herself, Chantal Mouffe is relaunching through her latest book the counter-hegemonic struggle against contemporary Neoliberalism. She sets her approach apart from other contemporary Leftist thinkers by promoting engagement, rather than disengagement with the institutions of representative democracy. While taking stock of alternative forms of extra-parliamentary activism, such as the Occupy movement, Mouffe emphasizes nevertheless the inescapability of "representation" for modern politics. Given that political identities are always constructed, so the argument goes, a vision of a politics-free world is utopian. Horizontalism and extra-parliamentarism a la Post-Operaism Exodus philosophers cannot generate a stable institutional order. Agonistic political activism on the other hand is able to re-energize contemporary democratic politics and give "voice" to groups that might feel underrepresented or disadvantaged in contemporary liberal democracies. Mouffe's argument is therefore a welcome plaidoyer for more, rather than less political engagement, and a defense of the potential for institutional reform within a democratic representative political system.

As a scientific theory, Agonism has yet to be applied empirically to International Relations research, and in analyses of contemporary art practices. The significance of Mouffe's political thinking for understanding sociopolitical action beyond traditional discussions of democracy reminds the reader however of the theory's untapped potential. Although uneven in the treatment of its various themes/chapters, this book successfully launches a new theoretical challenge to both IR researchers and art historians, blending an unlikely mix of geopolitics with surprising interpretations of the societal functions fulfilled by makeshift contemporary art museums. Alfred Jaar's 2008 Milan advertisements in a Berlusconi-dominated public space and his 2000 paper Museum in the Swedish town of Skoghall are examples of disruptive counter-hegemonic interventions. Although one would never expect that the Occupy movement and Jaar's artistic interventions have something in common, according to Mouffe's Agonism--they do.

Dana S. Trif (1)

(1) Dana Silvina Trif is a researcher at the Center for International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Ms. Trif defended in April 2015 a PhD thesis at the Otto-Suhr-Institut fur Politikwissenschaft (Freie Universitat Berlin) on the discursive hegemony of the international criminal justice discourse in international security policy. She specializes in the critique of discourse & ideology, IR theory, international criminal law and international security policy. E-mail:

(2) Mouffe, Chantal. 2013. Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically. London and New York: Verso, p. 6.
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Author:Trif, Dana S.
Publication:Romanian Journal of Political Science
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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