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Interview with Chantal Mouffe: “Pluralism is linked to the acceptance of conflict”

Text Enrique Díaz Álvarez

Portrait: Enrique Marco

Chantal Mouffe (born Charleroi, Belgium, 1943) is a lecturer on political theory at the University of Westminster. Her key works, such as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (1985) which she co-authored with Ernesto Laclau, The Return of the Political (1993), The Democratic Paradox (2000) and On The Political have made her an essential figure in contemporary political philosophy.

In contrast to the prevailing liberal-democratic paradigm, Mouffe advocates a reformulation of the socialist project based on a model of radical and plural democracy. This new political imagination is not structured around rational consensus, but instead around agonistic pluralism which entails acknowledging that politics will never be free of antagonism, as the existence of an every “us” implies the existence of a "them."

       Mouffe argues that the task of democracy of not to exclude or deny a conflict which cannot be eradicated, but rather to "domesticate" it. As a consequence, she argues for the changing antagonism for agonism i.e. establishing an "us/them" relationship in which opponents are not treated as “enemies,” but for them to perceive and recognise themselves as "adversaries" who share a common symbolic space.

       This interview took place in February 2010, on the occasion of a lecture that Chantal Mouffe gave in La Pedrera, as part of the “Socio-cultural challenges for the XXI century” season, organised by Multicultural Dynamics - Cidob and the Obra Social de Caixa Catalunya.


       The role played by the emotional dimension is an important part of your model for democracy and agonistic confrontation. You say that "the main task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions or relegate them to the private sphere to make rational consensus possible, but instead to mobilise these passions so that they promote democratic forms1. Appealing to this motivation these days seems very thought-provoking or striking to me, because for some time, perhaps since the excesses of fascism and Nazism that are well-known to all of us, political theory has stigmatised or underestimated the role played by passions in politics.

I agree. Basically it is linked to what happened with Nazism. For example, if you think of the work of Jürgen Habermas, who is one of the main representatives of the deliberative model of democracy that I criticise, he is obviously aiming to conceive of politics in a way that prevents the return of fascist-style mass movements. That is why he insists that it is necessary to think in rational terms in politics. Habermas thinks that the passions can only be mobilised in the way that Hitler and Nazism used them, which is why he says that the possibility of them playing an important role in politics must be prevented. But I think that he is making a fundamental error, because while it is true that passions can be mobilised in a way that is very worrying and dangerous for democracy, they can also be removed.

       Leaving the arena of the passions open only to the populist right or the extreme right is terribly dangerous. I am convinced that there is a very clear relationship between the rationalist model accepted by the traditional democratic parties – in which there is no place for a mobilisation of the passions towards democratic objectives – and the success of the populist right. The passions cannot be eliminated from politics; they are everywhere. They are part of individuals' make-up. Elias Canetti highlights this in a very interesting way in his book Crowds and Power, when he shows that human beings are attracted by two opposing forces: the affirmation of individuality on the one hand, and the urge to form part of a crowd on the other. I take the term “passions” to mean all the emotional forces that are at stake in the creation of collective identities. I disagree with calling these things emotions or feelings. They are not individual passions, they are collective passions. Research on the role of the emotions is today increasingly widespread …


Contemporary thinkers such as Judith Butler and Marta C. Nussbaum have recently considered the role of grief, vulnerability, compassion and empathy in politics. It is time to reconsider the emotions morally and politically?

Yes, but I don't want to go down that road. I'm not saying that it may not be interesting, but it's not what I have in mind. That's why I call them passions, because it's a collective force, what makes people become part of an “us.” Some years ago, I had this discussion with Richard Rorty, who told me that what I called passions were in reality feelings. I said no, because in fact there is an important theoretical difference.

       Of course I also think that the sentimental issue is important. For example, Rorty, as a critic of Habermas, mentioned something with which I am in complete agreement. He said that books like Uncle Tom's Cabin - by creating means of identification and sympathy – had played a much more important role in the fight against racism and slavery in the USA than all the philosophical treatises on racial equality. I agree with Rorty on the point of creating empathy, but I think that both he and Nussbaum have a viewpoint that is too individualist. What I want to do is to always link passion with conflict, which is something that I think is not present in these authors.


In the prologue of your book Deconstruction and Pragmatism, you criticise the democratic models of Rorty and Habermas because “neither of them is able to grasp the crucial role of conflict and the central integrative function that it plays in a pluralist democracy.”2

My starting point has to do with the concept of pluralism. A very important question to consider, because of its major impact on today's discussions, is that everyone talks about pluralism, but in reality there are two ways to understand it. One is the liberal way, which you find in Rawls, Habermas or in Arendt, who say that there are many different values and perspectives. Arendt, for example, returning to the expanded thought of Kant, insists that politics is linked to plurality and the ability to place ourselves in another's shoes. For her, the objective is to assume all these perspectives, to tend towards the creation of a harmony. But there is another conception of pluralism as well as this one, which is the one advocated by Max Weber – and also by Nietzsche – which is polytheism of values. They argue that pluralism must necessarily involve conflict because it is impossible– even in an ideal world – for all those values to one day be reconciled, because there some values are necessarily defined in contradiction to others. That is how I think pluralism should be understood: a pluralism which is linked to the recognition of an ineradicable conflict. Once we have accepted this concept, the question is to find out how pluralist democracy can exist, how it is going to work, and that is where my proposal comes in.


But what type of conflict are you referring to? Are you trying to construct a culture of dissent?

For me, the really important conflicts are the antagonistic conflicts, or in other words, when there is really no possibility of a rational reconciliation. There are no antagonistic conflicts in the liberal pluralist outlook because everyone can fiind a solution, while in the Weberian vision that I advocate there are conflicts due to antagonistic forces. So what can be done about them? My proposal is to see how we can make antagonism into agonism. The main objective of democracy is to create institutions so that when conflict emerges, it is agonistic and not antagonistic.


As part of this agonistic confrontation, you consider the "adversary" as a crucial part of democratic politics. In other words, there must be some recognition or common link between the parties in conflict, so that the “other” is not treated as an enemy to be eradicated. What type of individual virtues or requirements would be essential in your adversarial model? How do you envisage or imagine the agonistic individual?

A key requirement in the development of an agonistic democracy would be to forget about the idea that there is one truth and we are in possession of it. I think that on the left – and here I'm criticising myself - we have tended too often to think that we were in possession of the truth and everyone else was wrong. This attitude is incompatible with the agonistic conception, which consists of recognising that there are conflicting points of view, and various “truths” that will always be in conflict. Aiming to impose your truth is very problematic, and in fact what you have to acknowledge is your opponents' legitimacy.

       One of the problems today – which I look at in my work – is that politics takes place on a moral level. We don't think in terms of left or right any more, but instead about good and bad; “we are the good guys,” "the others are the bad guys.” If you think in those terms, then of course an agonistic dispute is impossible, Because if the bad guys are enemies, you can't have a dialogue with them even it's agonistic; you can't acknowledge their legitimacy. The agonistic position – and this is perhaps even more complicated – involves acknowledging the contingency of your beliefs, but nevertheless being willing to fight to defend them. Democratic politics implies accepting the legitimacy of others, and at the same time being willing to fight to transform power relations and create another hegemony.

       People think that to be strong and fight you have to be absolutely convinced that you are right, and leaving that behind leads to apathy. It doesn't seem right to me, but there is the reason for the position that is difficult to create: simultaneously feeling that your beliefs are relative and contingent, but nonetheless wanting to fight for them. To a certain extent, when Kant talks about enthusiasm he is referring to something similar; a type of enthusiasm for the fight, but one that is not based on the conviction that one is in possession of the truth. That is the essential quality.


A few years, we reached the milestone of over half of the world's population living in urban centres. I mention this because cities have always been related to conflict, coexistence between strangers and a plurality of outlooks. What role does the public space play in your agonistic theory? Do you think it is nostalgic to worry about the streets, squares or the public space in the Internet age?

It shouldn't be nostalgic; now we're talking about the Internet, which is also very interesting. The way we assess the question depends a great deal on what we think the public space is. For Habermas, for example, the public space is what enables the deliberation that leads to the solution. Ideally, he hopes that this deliberation will lead to consensus. For me, the public space is not where we try to reach consensus, but where there will be an opportunity for the expression of conflict, of dissent.

       From that point of view, the Internet is in reality neutral territory; I think that to believe that it creates this agonistic space in itself is a mistake. It can create it, but there must be a perspective from outside it, from a position that is not embedded in the technology itself. Unfortunately, the Internet today does not play a very positive role in the creation of the agonistic space. People only tend to read blogs by people they agree with, or to shut themselves off in a series of small communities with which they identify themselves. It is not somewhere where people go to read opinions other than their own. I find that really worrying. The Internet can obviously be used as a technique for creating an agonistic space, but to do that you have to have a clear political vision of what you want to do.

       To return to your question about what happens in the space in the city, I would consider it in similar terms; thinking that we don't need any more public spaces because we have the Internet is a mistake, because the Internet is not a substitute for them. Even it developed in a more agonistic way, it is very important to maintain, create and develop both public and physical public spaces, because direct contact between people is essential. I am concerned that with the rise of the Internet, people don't even come face to face with other people. There is a type of personal confinement, a lack of physical contact with other people, a lack of contact with different ideas.


I think this emphasis on being willing and having the opportunity to confront those who do not think like “us” is very thought-provoking. But within your model for agonistic democracy, how can you negotiate deliberate or argue with those who have no wish to participate in this symbolic common space that democracy creates? By this I mean the extreme right, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, drug trafficking…

I am not advocating pluralism without any frontiers, or suggesting that all demands can form a part of this agonistic space. I always stress that between adversaries there is a need - and this is the difference between an enemy and an adversary - for what I call a consensus of conflict, or in other words, a basis for consensus. If there is no symbolic common ground, then there is no chance of any type of agonistic dialogue in the discourse.

       I see the consensus of conflict as being an agreement on the ethical-political principles that characterise pluralist democracy – freedom and equality for all – but a disagreement on how to interpret and apply them. Many people may agree on equality and freedom for all, but everyone is going to understand what type of freedom and what type of equality in a completely different way, and even the “all,” because “all” is always limited, with frontiers. Some people are obviously permanently outside the agonistic space, because they do not accept the ethical-political principles: terrorist, fundamentalists – like the small group that wants to establish an Islamic republic in England – or some neo-Nazi groups. They are enemies, not adversaries. When I say enemies, what I mean is that we are not going to recognise their right to defend their position within the democratic system. There is simply no place for them. Unlike those who call into question the very foundations of democratic pluralism, enemies cannot be recognised in the name of pluralism.


Listening to you reminds me of a famous quote by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a Catalan writer who was a major figure on the left…

I know him, the detective novel author…


Exactly. He said “we lived better against Franco.” Vázquez Montalbán wrote it during the transition to democracy, as in his opinion part of the problem with the Spanish left was that it was unable to think in terms other than opposition to Franco's dictatorship. In this respect, what do you think is currently the enemy and the adversary of the European left?

Based on my reasoning so far, the enemy is not an enemy of the left, but instead an enemy of the pluralist democratic system. In other words, the enemies of the left must also be the enemies of the right; terrorist groups, for example, are enemies of both the Socialists and the People's Party. In a democratic regime, parties must treat each other as adversaries, not enemies. Accepting elections is in itself showing that you accept that your opponents should defend their point of view. The democratic system works based on recognition of the other as an adversary.

       In reality, there are three ways conceiving of the way to relate to conflict; so far we have talked about two, which are antagonism and agonism, but there is also the liberal conception, which simply sees politics as a game between competitors, as a neutral territory in which it is not accepted or recognised that all orders are hegemonic orders which are structured by power relations. From the liberal perspective, politics is simply a competition between elites - to use Schumpeter's term - which consists of seeing who can occupy the positions of power. That is the model of democracy that has become dominant since the Second World War; you come along, win the elections and take power, and then along comes someone else….

       In general, people think that democracy implies the possibility of alternation, of one party governing and then another governing, and then another. For me, a real democracy implies the possibility of alternatif, in which choosing a party can lrad to changing things. That is the difference between alternation and alternative. The left’s problem is that it has accepted and internalized this liberal conception of politics, and that is why ultimately there is no difference between what the centre-right and the centre-left have to offer. I remember that during the French presidential campaign in 2002 I joked with my students about the fact that the difference between the programme of Lionel Jospin - who had declared that he was not defending the socialist project – and that of Jacques Chirac was the same as the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. It was a shock to me and to everyone else to see Le Pen's face on television as the candidate with the second highest number of votes. But, in reality, I wasn't surprised, because it was a justification of everything I had been saying in the theoretical sphere; when the democratic parties do not offer a real choice, and they do not attempt to mobilise people based on really different projects, it is the populist parties of the right who win.


Indeed, pluralist democracy requires the presence of parties and institutions, through which disagreements and interests in conflict can be declared. But how is it possible to be receptive to the vast amount of voices, values and conceptions of what is good that converge every day in a multicultural city like Barcelona, in which around 15% if the population is immigrant, and where more than 110 nationalities live?

I can't answer that question. I would have to have precise knowledge of the laws for those immigrants, and that depends a great deal on each country. My position on multiculturalism, in abstract or general terms, is that there should be more recognition of cultural differences and customs. Uniformity should not be imposed, diversity here is not only legitimate, it is positive. What I cannot accept is the argument of those who say that really implementing multiculturalism would mean adopting types of legal pluralism. The case of Canada is particularly interesting from that this of view; some people suggest that each community should have the right to its own legal system, or in other words, there is no constitution or legal system that is applicable to everyone. There I disagree. For democracy to work, the adhesion to ethical-political principles must be respected. Our pluralistic democratic order is not compatible with the existence of principles of legitimacy in conflict, because in reality what is at stake with multiple legal systems is the principle of legitimacy. I do not believe that there is room for principles of legitimacy in opposing positions in a political association, because that would lead to destruction, and the dissolution of the political association. I can also see the limits of pluralism here. We need some principles of legitimacy, those that are defined in the Constitution, which are accepted all over the world.


Moving on to the current political situation, I would like to ask you whether you think the financial collapse of 2008 and the state interventionism that followed it are evidence that the neoliberal model is in crisis. It is time to talk about a post-neoliberal order?

I don't think so, unfortunately. Despite what one might have expected, things have practically returned to the situation before the crisis. There was an opportunity that was missed and it really is a shame, because with the financial crisis, suddenly the State – which had been demonised throughout the neoliberal era –appeared as the saviour. The State could have acted in two ways. One was exactly the way in which it did act: it intervened to save the banks, without even imposing very important new regulations. The other was to intervene in a much more radical way, for example, by using that opportunity to implement more redistributive measures, something like Roosevelt's measures with the New Deal.

       There was an opportunity, but for that it was necessary that in the countries - I'm talking about Europe - there needed to be a left that was really in a position to take advantage of it. The terrible thing is that today, after the financial crisis, it is the right and centre-right parties that have made the most out of it. After the elections in Great Britain, the only important country with a socialist government is Zapatero's Spain.

       The crisis has no been good for the left, as one would have expected from a crisis in the liberal model. There are two issues to consider here. First, the parties of the left are in crisis practically everywhere, and second – and perhaps more importantly – it would have been very difficult for the socialist parties to take advantage of the situation because to a large extent, they were jointly responsible for the recession due to having implemented the neoliberal model. Tony Blair, for example, privatised things that Margaret Thatcher would never have dared to privatise. The left was in a very difficult position to criticise or condemn the neoliberal model; in reality, they were part of the problem.


The Latin American left is anther spectrum, and another context. But what seems obvious is that in many respects, they have been stronger in confronting neoliberalism. I am thinking of the so-called Bolivar axis or even of the more moderate versions of the left like Lula or the Peronism of Cristina Kirchner, who by the way is an admirer of your work...

I am very struck by, and worried by, the way in which European left in general and newspapers like El País and Libération present the situation in Latin America. I have come to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with the problem of Eurocentrism. Liberal theorists, like Habermas, think that the liberal democratic model, as it is being implemented, is the most rational, most moral model, and should become universal. They think that in the West we are privileged in terms of the way we conceive of democracy.

       The European left also tends to think that it has a type of privilege in that way it conceives of the struggle of the left in a democratic country. It is very interesting, for example, that Chile is the only Latin American country that has generally had a good reputation among the European left. Why? Obviously because Bachelet is the closest thing to European social democracy, she is part of the “good left” because she acts "like us." So Chávez is not considered to be a left-winger, but instead a populist, because his model is different.

       In the Democratic Paradox3 I try to show that western democracy is an articulation created by two very different traditions, one liberal and the other democratic, and that these two traditions are always fighting for hegemony inside the democratic system. Today, the way we think of democracy in the European countries, even on the left, is influenced by the predominant liberal ideology, and the democratic tradition is less and less dominant. The articulation in Latin America is different; there, the democratic aspect became dominant because they suffered terribly from the excesses of neoliberalism. Because of this difference, for Europeans that is not democracy, but rather populism, because it emphasises the democratic aspect compared to the liberal aspect.


The European Union's mindset still appears to be based on based on an essentialism inherited from the national community and identity – hence the flag, and the anthem - and one wonders if instead of insisting on this monolithic "us," it would not be better to start with a European identity or imagine it by acknowledging mixtures and hybrids, thinking in terms of a plural "us"…

Europe can be conceived on a plural basis, but anyway I believe in and advocate what I call a multipolar, multicentric world, in which there are many regional blocs. In this respect, I totally disagree with Hardt and Negri's comments in their latest book, Commonwealth, when they say that it is necessary to destroy family, the State and the nation.

       I think what is happening in Latin America is very positive, as despite the differences between countries, they are aiming to create a Latin American identity with institutions like Unasur and the Banco del Sur. It is also important that China is beginning to be a power that counteracts the USA, and that these global units exist. In this respect, the European Union could play a decisive role, but should not do so on the basis of denying the differences between different European countries.


Is this an attempt to transfer the agonistic model to the European sphere and international relations?

I am just starting to work on considering what a Europe considered in agonistic terms would be like. I believe in the importance of a political Europe but – and here I again disagree with Habermas – that shouldn't involve abandoning national identities, or having only one European identity, or creating a European, demos. It is essential to acknowledge the diversity of European countries – because they have many things in common, but many differences – and I think diversity is a positive issue. Some political theorists working in the European arena have suggested an idea that I think is very interesting: thinking of European democracy in terms of a demoicracydemoi as in demos in the plural. A democracy that acknowledges the multiplicity of demoi. That really seems like an interesting direction in which to focus our thoughts.



1 Chantal Mouffe, Agonistic politics and artistic practices, Barcelona, MACBA/ UAB, 2007. p.20.

2 Desconstruction and pragmatism, Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1998. p.26.

3 The Democratic Paradox, Barcelona, Gedisa, 2003.




Autumn (October - December 2010)

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