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THE POLITICS OF CLAUDE
LEFORT\u2019S POLITICAL:
BETWEEN LIBERALISM AND
RADICAL DEMOCRACY1

James D. Ingram

ABSTRACT Claude Lefort\u2019s rethinking of \u2018the political\u2019 has been highly fruitful for political theory, yet its politics remain unclear. It has inspired transforma- tive, radical-democratic projects, but has also served as a basis for more liberal conceptions. This article explores the sources and implications of this ambigu- ity by setting Lefort\u2019s work against the backdrop of the anti-totalitarian moment in French political thought and the trajectories of two of his students, Miguel Abensour and Marcel Gauchet. It emerges that although Lefort\u2019s democratic theory cannot be reduced to a defensive liberalism, neither is it as expansive as some might hope.

KEYWORDS Miguel Abensour \u2022 Marcel Gauchet \u2022 Claude Lefort \u2022 liberal-
ism \u2022 radical democracy \u2022 \u2018the political\u2019

Claude Lefort is often credited with launching the \u2018return of political philosophy\u2019 in France, yet the political valence of his thinking, like that of this return, is by no means self-evident. Indeed, Lefort\u2019s contribution to politi- cal theory, like the broader movement of which it was a part, may be construed in two opposite ways. On the one hand, Lefort\u2019s work has been highly fruitful for radical-democratic, post-Marxist and deconstructive politi- cal theory. His theorization of \u2018the political\u2019 as a symbolic order, and modern democracy as constituted by \u2018an empty space of power\u2019, are rightly cele- brated as central contributions to an open-ended, post-foundational, radi- cally democratic political theory (e.g. Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, 1997 [1981)). On the other hand, his work can be read as

Thesis Eleven, Number 87, November 2006: 33\u201350

SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Copyright \u00a9 2006 SAGE Publications andThesis Eleven Co-op Ltd DOI: 10.1177/0725513606068774

participating in the attack on radical politics that led the French intellectual left on its de\ufb02ationary course from May \u201968 to a depoliticized \u2018republic of the centre\u2019. By decisively rejecting Marxism, underlining the dangers of revol- ution, and depicting democracy \ufb01rst and foremost in contrast to totali- tarianism, Lefort helped pioneer a generational shift away from the radical, transformative tradition and toward reconciliation with \u2018normal\u2019 liberal- constitutional politics. Lefort\u2019s ideas, then, can be associated with radicaliza- tion or restoration, the deepening or limiting of democracy, awakening from an old ideological slumber or falling into a new one.2 It is this ambiguity \u2013 the \u2018politics\u2019 of Lefort\u2019s \u2018political\u2019 \u2013 that I seek to explore here.

I interrogate Lefort\u2019s rethinking of the political in light of a central division in contemporary political theory, a division that splits the hyphen in liberal-democratic thinking. Though often assumed to go together, liber- alism and democracy are distinct, at times antagonistic, principles (Geuss, 2001; Mouffe, 2000). Democracy designates a form of rule: rule by the people. Liberalism does not; there is no \u2018liberocracy\u2019. Liberalism is a theory and practice oflimiting rule for the sake of individual freedom. There can be illiberal democracy (the classical polis) and anti-democratic liberalism (constitutional monarchy), though today of course the preference is for a hybrid, with popular sovereignty checked by the rule of law, individual and minority rights, a division of powers and so on. Nevertheless, the \ufb01ssure between liberal and radical democracy, central to the politics of 19th-century Europe, has re-opened in recent years on the academic left. Today\u2019s liberals and radical democrats agree broadly on aims: they favour a more equitable distribution of rights, resources and power. Yet how they envision these aims, and especially the theoretical and political means of pursing them, can differ profoundly. On one side, (left) liberals emphasize principles, laws and institutions that would produce just outcomes, understood in terms of rights and entitlements. On the other, radical democrats emphasize the politics that would lead to a more just society, understood in terms of power and partici- pation. To radical democrats, liberals can seem conservative, moralistic, ratio- nalistic and indifferent to politics; to liberals, radical democrats can seem reckless, amoral, antirational and indifferent to normative questions.3At stake in this debate is at once the nature of democracy, what it is and can become, and the task of political theory, how it can promote freedom and equality.

A liberal/radical democratic frame not only helps locate Lefort\u2019s politics in contemporary debates, it also helps situate him in his historical context. For with the evaporation of Marxism, this opposition became one of the key ideological axes within Lefort\u2019s milieu. As we will see, however, even within this context he cuts an ambiguous \ufb01gure. I therefore propose to explore the implications of his thought as they were elaborated in the work of two of his most accomplished students, Marcel Gauchet and Miguel Abensour. While both started from a position very near Lefort\u2019s around 1970 \u2013 a non- Marxist, libertarian4 leftism \u2013 Gauchet embarked on a journey from anarchism

34Thesis Eleven (Number 87 2006)

to liberalism to republicanism, while Abensour remained closer to the spirit of the 1960s, moving toward radical democracy. What is remarkable about these contrasting careers is that both were decisively shaped by Lefort; in their work we see in a sense the realization of two possibilities latent in his thinking. After laying out the central features of Lefort\u2019s rethinking of demo- cratic politics in the \ufb01rst part of this article, I explore these different possi- bilities in the second. In the third part I use them to sharpen the contours of Lefort\u2019s own position. Although the bases of a sophisticated form of radical democratic thinking can be found in Lefort\u2019s theory, I conclude that elabor- ating it may require a radical rethinking of his notion of \u2018the political\u2019.

I. DEMOCRACY, POLITICS AND THE POLITICAL

A point of entry into Lefort\u2019s distinctive thinking of the political can be had via two common understandings of politics, one typically associated with liberal, the other with radical-democratic theory. The \ufb01rst views politics in terms of the common good and the proper constitution of the community. This understanding underlies the main current of political philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Rawls, with its focus on \u2018constitutional essentials\u2019 and its search for a just and stable order. This view is holistic and normative, and implies a perspective on society that is at once external and from the top, as re\ufb02ected in the Oxford English Dictionary\u2019s principal de\ufb01nition of politics: the \u2018science and art of government; the science dealing with the form, organization, and administration of a state or part of one\u2019 \u2013 or, at a more theoretical level: \u2018that branch of moral philosophy dealing with the state or social organism as a whole\u2019. The second understanding conceives of politics in terms of power, as competition for rule and resources and the jockeying of different interests and ideologies. This view, which theOED notes is generally \u2018unfavourable\u2019, is classically expressed in Harold Lasswell\u2019s formula: \u2018who gets what, where and how\u2019. It has another genealogy, stretch- ing from Machiavelli to Marx to Weber to Foucault, whose emphasis on power and con\ufb02ict tends to be shared by today\u2019s radical democrats. Of course, most re\ufb02ections on politics try to strike a balance between the two notions, between the whole and the parts, idealism and realism. Lefort\u2019s is no exception. What sets him apart is his way of doing so.

Lefort\u2019s theoretical innovations are based in his understanding of politics as a symbolic domain. This is the root of his particular way of char- acterizing the relation between \u2018politics\u2019 (la politique) and \u2018the political\u2019 (le

politique), a distinction his work has done much to revive.5\u2018The political\u2019
usually corresponds to the \ufb01rst understanding of politics, politics-as-regime;
le politiquetranslates the Greek politeia(polity) as well as politikos(poli-

tician or statesman). \u2018Politics\u2019 (la politique), by contrast, usually corresponds to the second, con\ufb02ictual understanding. Lefort does not disagree, de\ufb01ning \u2018politics\u2019 as competition for public power and decisions about its use. His

Ingram: The Politics of Claude Lefort\u2019s Political35

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