Review: The Democratic Paradox, C. Mouffe

by Marc Geddes

The Democratic Paradox delves into a range of topics, including post-structuralist and classical liberal theory, an analysis of political apathy, the social democratic malaise, and the very nature of politics itself. In this review, I wish to briefly explore the central themes that have come out of this book, namely: the nature of the political, the liberal-democratic paradigm, the critique of centrist politics, and finally the alternative of agonistic democracy.

Mouffe covers her idea of the political in a different book, entitled The Return of the Political, and as such there is much less emphasis on this theme in her book. However, the idea of politics and its central aims offer a key foundation for the rest of the book, and so it would be unwise to brush past it.

The first, and most important, facet of her conceptualisation of politics is that it is characterised by power relations. All social objectivity is constructed on the basis of ideas and as such power constitutes identities. This is a crucial point because it suggests that the political is constructed on the idea of power relations themselves, which are, by definition, conflictual. All politics is based on conflicting ideologies, experiences and identities and politics remains about the struggle for ideas based on a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Specific political organisations (whether monarchies, democracies, autocracies) attempt to bridge these social divisions. Indeed, most totalitarian regimes are built exclusively on conceptions of the us/them dichotomy, and particularly the elimination of a ‘them’ in order to unite an ‘us’ (think of Nazi Germany, Soviet communism, and even the United States in the 1950s and 60s).

If we accept that identities are constructed on the basis of conflicting visions and ideas (which we must) then the ‘us/them’ idea has pivotal consequences for democratic politics. Mouffe concludes that: ‘the aim of democratic politics is to construct the ‘them’ in such a way that is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an ‘adversary’, that is, somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question’ (pp.101-2). Enter liberal democracy.

The idea of modern democracy is based on the struggle between liberalism, based on ideas of individual liberty and the protection of rights, and on democracy, based on collective sovereignty and equality. This is at the heart of the democratic paradox, and they can never be perfectly reconciled, they can only be negotiated in different ways. This is very important, because it means that perfect liberty and perfect equality are never possible. This critique, first voiced by Carl Schmitt in the 1920s, suggests that liberal democracy is doomed to fail. Mouffe critically engages with Schmitt by accepting the tension that exists between the two ideologies, but does not conclude from it that liberal democracies must fail. Rather, the conflict between liberalism and democracy produces a space that makes political society possible. Mouffe summarises: ‘What we need to do is precisely what Schmitt does not do: once we have recognized that the unity of the people is the result of a political construction, we need to explore all the logical possibilities that a political articulation entails’ (pp.55-6). Schmitt takes the demos as a given, but Mouffe argues that it is always struggling to form itself. Through every contestation we see a struggle about the definition of the people, and the constitution of its identity. There is never a fully formed demos, only the continuous accumulation of its being. This means that it is hugely important to leave this space of contestation forever open. Centrist politics in the form of deliberative democracy and the third way do exactly the opposite.

Mouffe directly challenges the idea of deliberative or consensus-based democracy because it removes precisely that which makes something political: conflict. Deliberative democracy precludes the possibility of contestation by relegating contested issues to a non-public sphere. Anything that is deemed of public interest must be deliberated in public with the frank intention to offer a conclusive, rational and permanent solution. Any conflict (which is what politics is about) is removed from decision-making. In other words, the deliberative approach attempts to depoliticise decision-making, or remove it altogether from the people and give it to the judiciary. Similarly, ideas of the ‘third way’ embraced by most social democrats is a dangerous trend because it surrenders to the neo-liberal hegemony incepted in the late 1970s. Particularly the thought of Anthony Giddens comes under severe critique by Mouffe, in which ‘going beyond’ the left/right paradigm has had a stifling effect on politics. Apathy in politics has risen in recent years because the identities within the left and the right have become blurred. Instead, political identities are built on religious, nationalist or ethnic lines.

The above discussion suggests that ‘[a] well-functioning democracy calls for a confrontation between democratic political positions, and this requires a real debate about possible alternatives. Consensus is indeed necessary but it must be accompanied by dissent. There is no contradiction in saying that, as some would pretend. Consensus is needed on the institutions which are constitutive of democracy. But there will always be disagreement concerning the way social justice should be implemented in these institutions. In a pluralist democracy such a disagreement should be considered as legitimate and indeed welcome’ (p.113). Mouffe believes that there is an urgent need to re-establish the centrality of politics and to draw new political frontiers to tackle both the growth in political apathy as well as the political problems that we face today (especially an alternative to the age of austerity). What this suggests is not a return to a polarisation of society on traditional left/right lines, but rather one based on contestation and to accept that, as part of healthy democracies, we must be allowed to disagree with one another.

The Democratic Paradox is a crucial book for anyone who believes that politics must be defended, highly recommendable! Moreover, it ties into a range of themes for my own research, and has further substantiated my belief that we must move beyond the dichotomy of tribalism on the one hand, and depoliticisation, on the other.