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Chantal Mouffe and the Philosophical Heritage of Carl Schmitt

Paper to be presented at the Annual Conference of the

Swiss Political Science Association

St. Gallen, January 8-9, 2008

Martin Beckstein


Since the 1990s Carl Schmitt has edged ever closer to the spotlight of Chantal Mouffe’s political

thought. Determining the function of her reconsideration of the controversial German thinker in her

writings, however, is no easy task. Although commentators, as well as Mouffe herself, suggest that

what is aimed at is a conceptual revision of Schmitt’s friend/enemy-discrimination, this interpretation

lacks plausibility. By scrutinising the authorial intention in writings such as The Return of the Political,

The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, and On the Political, I argue that Mouffe systematically uses her

“dialogue” with Schmitt to launch a polemic against the idea of a politics beyond left and right. In

consequence, we should not apply criteria such as logical consistency, viability, or originality when

evaluating these writings. We should content ourselves, instead, with asking in how far her writings

are suitable to increase the reader’s adherence to the theses presented for its assent. The examination

of the function of Mouffe’s dialogue with Schmitt allows, additionally, to raise more general questions

about the authorial intention and context-specific criteria of evaluation.


Mouffe, Schmitt, the political, pluralism, authorial intention, conceptual revision, polemics
1 Introduction
To talk about the political thought of Chantal Mouffe for many means to talk about

the political thought of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Due to the

overwhelming success of their co-authored study Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

(Laclau and Mouffe 1985), the view of an authorial identity has been established in

large parts of the secondary literature (Wenman 2003b: 582, 602 Fn. 2). Varying from

this standard, this investigation concentrates on Mouffe’s work exclusively. With

some plausibility, one might be able to identify a distinct Mouffian political thought

already in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy;1 in any case, however, we have good

reasons to expect one in her later writings. First, most of them are single-authored;

and second, a novel influence enters her reflections that edges ever closer to the

spotlight. This influence is Carl Schmitt. Whereas in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,

Schmitt is not even mentioned, the controversial German thinker increasingly takes

centre stage in her following work. Mouffe deals with him in many significant

writings, and tellingly, she has even published an edited book with the title The

Challenge of Carl Schmitt (Mouffe 1999a). Thus, in order to cast light on Mouffe’s

work, a promising way should be found in re-reading the dialogue she establishes

with Schmitt in her writings.

Given the centrality of this dialogue in her recent writings, I treat it as an

important feature of her political thought from the 1990s onwards. It is important to

note, however, that my claims in this article concern solely this facet, and that I do

not pretend to provide a comprehensive interpretation of Mouffe’s political thought.

Methodically, such an endeavour would require analysing and comparing all of her

texts: of the texts in which she deals with Schmitt and of those in which she does not,

of her writings from the 1990s onwards and of those written before, of those

published individually and of those authored in collaboration. Sure, the name under

which a number of writings are traded is not the worst reason to assume content-

1Examining Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Marc A. Wenman differentiates a more Mouffian, radical
democratic chapter (ch. 4) from a more Laclauian, post-marxist one (ch. 3), and sees acute, indeed
“incommensurate” differences that separate the work of these two authors (Wenman 2003b: 581).

specific continuity and coherence. It is nevertheless neither the best, because the

question of authorial identity is also relevant in cases where one person writes

different texts. Scrutinising the authorial intention in all texts written by Mouffe

could bring to light an early and later Mouffe; a Mouffe in authorial identity with

Laclau and one without; an Althusserian and a Gramscian theorist; a feminist, a

postmodernist, and many other distinct “Mouffes.” However, I am interested only in

one of them: that Mouffe who enters into a dialogue with Carl Schmitt.2

Insofar as scholars have commented on this Mouffe, her dialogue with Schmitt

has often been treated as a conceptual revision of his political theory.3 This comes

without surprise because the reconsideration of another one theorist’s writings

usually aims at the improvement, adjustment, or modification of concepts found

therein in order to inject them into current philosophical discourse. This

interpretation is even more suggesting since Mouffe herself abets it. She frequently

portrays her consideration of Schmitt as the attempt to theoretically transform his

concept of the political as antagonism into a theory of agonistic pluralism. A major

feature of Mouffe’s political thought since the 1990s, then, appears to be a

philosophical answer to the “challenge” posed by (the political theory of) this

controversial German thinker.

2 Her dialogue with Schmitt takes place primarily in the following works: The Return of the Political
(1993), which is a collection of essays written between 1988 and 1993; here, the introduction and the
articles 7-9 are of special interest. The Challenge of Carl Schmitt (1999a), which is an edited book with an
introduction (Mouffe 1999b) and one contribution (Mouffe 1999c) by Mouffe. Finally, On the Political
(2005c), a monograph, is of particular interest. Here, many topics are revisited and arranged anew. At
this point, the reader might play me at my own game and argue that I should better speak of
dialogues (pl.) between Mouffe and Schmitt in these writings. I definitely agree, especially because it
is likely that some of the texts are directed at a more academic audience, while others aim at
intervening into public discourse. For the central argument of this article, however, the similarities of
Mouffe’s dialogues with Schmitt carry more weight than the differences. Although the analysis of the
Mouffe-Schmittian dialogues would be certainly instructive, I consider it therefore legitimate to
portray them as a more or less coherent unity.
3 Mark A. Wenman, for instance, sees in Mouffe’s work the “attempt to both rework and circumvent

the ideas of Carl Schmitt” (Wenman 2003a: 179). Jacob Torfing discusses the work of Chantal Mouffe
as a “new theory of discourse”. Although in most occasions he treats Mouffe’s and Laclau’s work as a
coherent unity, he also suggests that Mouffe has revised Schmitt’s concept of the political by the
category of the adversary (Torfing 2003: 121). Benjamin Arditi, to give another example, believes that
Mouffe seeks to revise Schmitt’s concept of the political and to “sanitise” it by “morphing antagonism
into agonism” (Arditi 2008: 9). Others suggest that Mouffe intends to excoriate neoliberalism and third
way thinking by revising Schmitt’s concept of the political (e.g. Wenman 2007).

I will argue, by contrast, that interpreting Mouffe’s dialogue with Schmitt in

terms of a revision of his concept of the political is only of limited plausibility. On the

one hand, the expected revision comes pretty neigh to an actualisation on a closer

look. What we do find in her writings, on the other hand, are lavishly dosed blows

against any sort of a politics of consensus. Recalling the function that Schmitt

attributes to political theorising, I believe, should lead us to take issue with the

possibility that Mouffe’s primary purpose in polemically intervening into political


The investigation is organised in the following way. The next section (2)

introduces to Mouffe’s dialogue with Schmitt considered as a conceptual revision.

Here, I largely build on those passages in Mouffe’s writings that suggest such a

reading, and try to systematise them. In the third part I present two arguments

against this interpretation. The first holds that Mouffe actually desists from revising

Schmitt’s concept of the political (3.1). In the second I argue that apart from Schmitt’s

political theory, Mouffe has been inspired by his methodological considerations, too,

and primarily intends to polemicise (3.2). In concluding remarks, I raise more general

questions about the authorial intention and criteria of evaluation. I suggest that instead

of assessing the logical consistency, originality, and viability of a supposed Schmitt-

revision, we should rather ask whether we find her account attractive and persuasive,

and thus might be willing to support her intervention into political discourse (4).

2 Mouffe’s Dialogue with Schmitt – a Conceptual Revision?

The assertion that frequently build the starting point of Mouffe’s reflections is that

current liberal thought provides no viable political theory of democracy (Mouffe

1999a: 1-2, 5; Mouffe 1999b: 2–3; Mouffe 2005c: 1-2, 10). Most accounts, she tells us,

could be characterised as indeed post-political visions: liberals envisage democracy

in terms of a set of institutions that obtain consensus by means of neutral procedures

and rational deliberation. Worse still, because of communism’s demise in most parts

of the world, they vaticinate a “cosmopolitan future bringing peace, prosperity and

the implementation of human rights worldwide” (Mouffe 2005c, 1). Liberals would

thus concur with sociologists’ longing for an end of ideology. Yet, the “excess of

consensus,” Mouffe remarks, “usually masks a disquieting apathy” (Mouffe 1993: 6).

And instead of promoting their goal of a peaceful world in unison, the continuing

pressure on achieving consensus eventually nourishes the germination of violence.

Liberals thus “contribut[e] to exacerbating the antagonistic potential existing in

society” (Mouffe 2005c: 2). If we are to avert “the destruction of democracy” (Mouffe

1993: 133), Mouffe seems to suggest, it is necessary to rethink its working conditions.

In order to sort out the conditions of a stable and yet attractive democratic

regime, Mouffe announces to draw on the work of Carl Schmitt. This is an

unexpected move, because Carl Schmitt has been a red rag to political theorists after

World War II, and they made considerable efforts in the hope of not becoming

associated with his thought. In the charming words of Jacob Taubes, “every

unsalaried lecturer of political science in his inaugural address feels compelled to

give Carl Schmitt a kick in the arse.”4 Not so, however, Chantal Mouffe. “Not the

moral qualities,” she says, “should be the decisive criteria when deciding whether we

need to establish a dialogue” with a thinker’s work, but “the intellectual force;” and

due to the “crucial insights for an adequate understanding of the political,” an

engagement with Schmitt is simply inevitable (Mouffe 2005c: 4–5).

2.1 Thinking With Schmitt

In his essay The Concept of the Political Schmitt argues that to develop a viable concept

of the political, we must investigate its specific ultimate distinction just in the way we

proceed when determining the moral, the aesthetic, or the economic (Schmitt 1996:

25–6). Whereas the moral, the aesthetic, and the economic are traditionally explained

in terms of good and evil, beautiful and ugly, and profitable and unprofitable, there

should be a likewise special, independent, and somewhat obvious criterion of the

4“[In den meisten Büchern] wird ein demokratisches ABC abgehört, und jeder Privatdozent in der
Politologie in seiner Antrittsvorlesung muß natürlich einen Tritt in den Arsch von Carl Schmitt geben,
daß Freund/Feind nicht die richtige Kategorie sei” (Taubes 1987: 76).

political. By contrast to Max Weber, who did believe this impossible (Weber 1978 vol

1.; I,17: 55), Schmitt is not at loss for an answer. The fundamentum divisionis of the

political, he tells us, is the distinction between friend and enemy (Schmitt 1996: 26).

The specificity of the political, however, is that it is not just another distinct domain

among others, but the “strongest and most intense of the distinctions and

categorizations” (Schmitt 1996: 27). The political lies at the ground of social life and

overrides all other distinctions:

“The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not
appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage
with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger;
and it is sufficient to this nature that he is, in an especially intense way,
existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts
with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previously determined
general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third
party” (Schmitt 1996: 27).

What we instantaneously gain from thinking with Schmitt and his friend/enemy-

discrimination, Mouffe points out, are four basal insights into the political: first, we

come to acknowledge that political identities are not given, but form relationally

(Mouffe 1993: 2; Mouffe 1999c: 43; Mouffe 2005c: 11, 15). The construction of a “we”

requires the demarcation of a “them” so that in the process of identity-formation the

“other” serves as its constitutive outside (Mouffe in subsequence to Henry Staten in:

Mouffe 1993: 2; Mouffe 2005c: 15). The association of a group of people goes hand in

hand with the dissociation from another one. By necessity, therefore, “the political

world is a pluriverse, not a universe” (Schmitt 1996: 53; quoted in Mouffe 1999c: 48;

referred to in Mouffe On 2005c: 87). Already implicit in these remarks is, second, that

the political concerns collectives (Mouffe 1993: 2-3, 110, 140; Mouffe 1999b: 4; Mouffe

2005c: 11). The third insight is that political relations are inherently conflictual

(Mouffe 1993: 2–3; Mouffe 1999b: 4; Mouffe 2005c: 11–2). Whereas interests of

competitors or disagreement of discussants might be resolved by means of

negotiation or deliberation, with regard to political oppositions any consensus based

on rationality or reason is foreclosed. Implied again is, fourth, that the political does

not constitute a specific sphere or level of society, but determines our ontological

condition (Mouffe 1993: 3; Mouffe 2005c: 16). Taken together, in Mouffe’s view,

Schmitt’s assertions reveal liberals to indulge in wishful thinking with their

rationalist and consensus-oriented accounts (Mouffe 1999b: 2).

Mouffe leaves no doubt that she considers Schmitt’s concept of the political still

pertinent, forsooth “more relevant than ever” (Mouffe 2005c: 12). Nonetheless, she

also perceives a strong anti-pluralist bias looming in his concept which would make

it necessary to part company with Schmitt at this point and to start thinking against

him (Mouffe 1993: 4-5, 120; Mouffe 1999b: 6; Mouffe 2005c: 14).

2.2 Thinking Against Schmitt

The issue Mouffe has with Schmitt is that the only pluralism legitimate and possible

according to his concept is a pluralism of states (Mouffe 1993: 4–5; Mouffe 1999c: 49;

Mouffe 2005c: 14). This consequence stems from the “main limitation of Schmitt’s

friend/enemy-discrimination,” she argues: “while he asserts the conflictual nature of

the political, he does not permit a differential treatment of this conflictuality”

(Mouffe 1999b: 4–5). In these remarks, Mouffe hooks up with a wide-spread critique

without, however, repeating it in detail. Some brief explanations will be helpful,

therefore, to recall the reproach.

According to many critics (who still believe that the engagement with Schmitt’s

thought is worth one’s while) the problem is that Schmitt cannot (or is unwilling to)

make room for substantive pluralism inside a community because he devises

political oppositions as not simply conflictual, but indeed bellicose (e.g. Sartori 1989;

Derrida 1997; Arditi 2008). Whereas most approaches that envisage politics “sub

specie bellum” and not “sub specie consensus” (Geuss 2001: 4–5) treat conflict

primarily as standing metaphorically for pluralist political intercourse, “bellum” in

Schmitt’s account gains a surprisingly literal meaning. Politics is close to being

identified with war: The opposition of friend and enemy does not mean

“competition, nor does it mean pure intellectual controversy nor symbolic

wrestlings in which, after all, every human being is somehow always involved,

for it is a fact that the entire life of a human being is struggle and every human
being symbolically a combatant. The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive
their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical
killing” (Schmitt 1996: 33).

Admittedly, Schmitt makes some efforts not to conflate the conflictual reality of the

political with war: on the one hand, by describing physical killing as the “ever

present possibility“ and “leading presupposition“ (Schmitt 1996: 34) of the political.

On the other hand, he distances himself from Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the

continuation of politics by other means. Although his remarks are argued

conclusively to a great extent, neither is capable of dispelling concerns about the

bellicose tendency. The first faces a logical inconsistency. Schmitt singles out the

friend/enemy-discrimination precisely because it is alone capable of escalating into

war. In order to be political, Schmitt asserts that an opposition must necessarily

comprise the possibility of erupting into violence. Thus, Schmitt consciously or

unconsciously confers war a teleological dimension; war turns out to be the essence

and the goal, not the precondition and mere possibility of the political (Sartori 1989:

66–8; Derrida 1997: 131-32, 139).5 An example that reveals the bellicose and

ultimately misguided character of Schmitt’s conceptualisation is his treatment of

pacifism. Pacifist movements will not be political, he puts it, as long as they are not

prepared to actually conduct “war against war” (Schmitt 1996: 36). Without having

reached that grade of intensity and resolve, pacifists would not have grouped

themselves as friends against enemies (the non-pacifists). In consequence their

movement would not be political at all.

5Benjamin Arditi explains: “if one places absolute peace or complete absence of conflict at one end of
the spectrum and war at the other, the intensity of an opposition will increase as we move away from
peace. Political oppositions – those structured around the friend-enemy relation – are unthinkable in
the case of zero conflict, because then there would be no enmity and therefore no possibility of
grouping people as friends or enemies. Yet, once you move away from pure stasis, the political can be
anywhere in the scale of intensity. The problem is that economic, ethnic, religious, and other
oppositions will be part of that spectrum too, so what is it that makes political oppositions so special?
Schmitt simply affirms that they are the most intense of all. But the measurement of intensity is
notoriously tricky, and if the intensity – and therefore the political nature – of an opposition increases
as it moves closer to war, then war would turn out to be the quintessence rather than the extreme or
exceptional manifestation of the political“ (Arditi 2008: 8).

Schmitt’s other remark – the rebuff of Clausewitz’s dictum – comes very close to

a diversionary tactic. After having rejected it nominally, he laments that the dictum is

generally cited incorrectly.6 Following the added footnote it turns out to the surprise

of the reader that Schmitt refrains from considering war as the continuation of

politics simply because tactics in diplomatic negotiations differ from those on the

battleground (Schmitt 1996: 34 Fn. 14). Any further conceptual or normative

distinction (for instance, that war is an atrocious form of politics) apparently is

deemed dispensable. No wonder that in a 1938 corollary to The Concept of the Political

Schmitt has no problems reviving Clausewitz’s dictum: reflecting about the “peace

dictate of Versailles” (“Pariser Friedensdiktate”) he avers that peace is in fact the

most perfidious continuation of war by other means (Schmitt 2002: 107).

The fatal consequences of these bellicose tendencies for a theory of democracy

are evident. If political oppositions make part of our ontological condition, they must

exist either inside a community or between communities. But if political oppositions

are eventually staged violently, there is no place for them inside a community (if it is

not to get caught up in turmoil), and they must be externalised. Accordingly, Mouffe

writes that Schmitt’s concept requires expelling “every division and antagonism outside

the demos – the exterior it needs if it is to establish its unity” (Mouffe 1999c: 49).

2.3 Thinking Beyond Schmitt

To make compatible Schmitt’s concept of the political with a model of democracy is

indeed a challenge. Answering it requires to theorise politics “sub specie bellum”

without concentring on war literally. Otherwise no (non-violent) pluralism could be

imagined inside a community. Following the interpretation according to which

Mouffe intends to revise Schmitt’s concept of the political by arguing with and

6Instead of the abridged dictum of Clausewitz “war is the continuation of politics by other means,”
Schmitt insists on the literal term “[w]ar is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with a
mixture of other means” (Schmitt 1996: 34 Fn. 14). I doubt that there are significant differences in the
two phrases with regard to Schmitt’s context.

against him, her answer for allowing for a domestically non-violent treatment of

conflictuality reads pluralist agonism:

"[i]f we want to acknowledge on one side the permanence of the antagonistic

dimension of conflict, while on the other side allowing for the possibility of its
»taming,« we need to envisage a [...] type of relation which I have proposed to
call »agonism«” (Mouffe 2005c: 20).

Mouffe’s agonism grasps opposed political collectives not in terms of enemies to be

destroyed, but of adversaries to be confronted (Mouffe 1993: 4). This transformation

of antagonism into agonism, and of enemies into adversaries is possible, Mouffe

claims, because

“[w]hile antagonism is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies
who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation where the
conflicting parties [… share] a common symbolic space within which the conflict
takes place” (Mouffe 2005c: 20).

Some commonality among people is required, Mouffe admits, to prevent the

disruption of a society. But the necessary common bond must not be a common

good, which, after all, would eventually undermine substantial pluralism (Mouffe

1992: 31). No politically homogeneous demos, as Schmitt imagines according to her

reading, is the condition of existence for non-violent intercourse within a political

community. People must not be unified under a substantial consensus, and not even

under a rational one – as Mouffe claims Rawls and Habermas would have it. It will

do, she says, a “conflictual consensus” (Mouffe 1999b: 4; Mouffe 2000: 26; Mouffe

2005c: 52). The respect of mutual democratic citizenship is commonality enough to

mitigate political conflicts, and it is a commonality that is compatible with

substantive forms of heterogeneity. Citizens of democratic communities, Mouffe

argues, abide by the “democratic »rules of the game«” (Mouffe 1993: 4) when

confronting each other and thus enable “religious, moral and cultural pluralism, as

well as a pluralism of political parties” (Mouffe 1999c: 50).7

7In other instances, Mouffe writes that people in democratic societies accept the “principles of modern
pluralist democracy, i.e. […] liberty and equality for all” (Mouffe 1992: 30), or share a common
allegiance to the ethico-political principles of liberal-democracy” (Mouffe 1999b: 4).

3 Rethinking the Function of Mouffe’s Dialogue With Schmitt

To embark on a quest for authorial intentionality will appear anachronistic to many.

Scholars such as Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, or Paul Ricoeur have

forcefully argued against any project of ascribing intentions to authors and meanings

to texts. We simply cannot hope to look into an author’s head. Instead of

investigating what original authors purportedly have intended to assign to their

texts, we should, for instance, rather reflect about its public meanings today (Ricoeur

1981: 201). I am convinced that such a shifted focus leads us to many highly

interesting and important questions, and I would appreciate such an interpretation of

the texts under review. But I believe an investigation about Mouffe’s reflections

around Carl Schmitt with a view to what her texts say to us now, does not render

redundant the quest for what Mouffe had been doing in arranging her dialogue with

Schmitt then. As Quentin Skinner compellingly argues (Skinner 2001), the anti-

intentionalist critique has failed to provide us sufficient reason for abandoning

questions about authorial intentionality – at least if we accept of only being able to

formulate a hypothesis about an author’s intentions:

“the man in the next field, who is waving his arms in a manner which, I come to
see, is not intended to drive off a wasp as I had initially supposed, but rather to
warn me that the bull is about to charge. To recognise that he is issuing a
warning is to recognise the communicative intentions embodied in his act of
waving. But to recover these intentions is not in the least a matter of successfully
re-creating the ideas inside his head at the moment when he first began to wave.
It is rather a matter of understanding a particular convention and recognising its
deployment in the given case” (Skinner 2001: 186).

The hypothesis about an author’s intention may not go unchallenged, it might be

modified, or discarded by more nuanced readings. But it can still help to make sense

of the texts, and to figure out for or against what she was arguing for.

These brief remarks about the authorial intention shall make clear that I do not

claim to think Mouffe’s thoughts after her or to extract of her texts the pure intended

meaning. In subsequence to John Passmore it can be emphasised that I might well

arrive at an understanding of the texts under review that differs from Mouffe’s own

understanding – be it the understanding at the time she wrote her texts, or her

understanding when she reads them today (Passmore 1965: 32). There is no problem

with that, however, because what I am interested in when scrutinizing the authorial

intention is the meaning of the intervention she made by arranging her dialogue with


When approaching Mouffe’s texts, a plethora of possible forms of interventions

are imaginable, as our experience from examining the authorial intention in other

cases shows. Mouffe might have argued for a revised concept of Schmitt’s political

that allows for a differential treatment of conflictuality, as was indicated in the

preceding chapter. Alternatively, her intervention could be one of hermeneutical or

historiographical character. Peter Caldwell, for instance, reads Mouffe in this way in

his review of recent literature on Carl Schmitt. Here, Caldwell (referring to Meier

1998) portrays the view that a rejection of political philosophy in the name of political

theology underlies Schmitt’s entire work. If this view is right, he concludes, Mouffe’s

reading that Schmitt is a defender of politics would be “deadly wrong” (Caldwell

2005: 363). Furthermore, many other possibilities are imaginable which shall not be

mentioned at this point. I will suggest another possibility in any case, namely, that

her intervention is of a primarily polemical character. My contention is that answers

to questions such as “How is Schmitt to be interpreted?” or “How to revise Schmitt’s

concept of the political?” play a secondary role in the texts considered at best. In the

first instance we find therein instead a normative critique of political thinking and

action beyond left and right – a course of action she believes dominant in the western


In the following sections of this article, I attempt to corroborate this hypothesis

with two arguments. And it should be mentioned that my attempts to discard

alternative readings will concentrate on the interpretation of her intervention in

terms of a conceptual revision, because it enjoys some popularity.8 The first, to

anticipate, is that Mouffe makes little effort to revise Schmitt’s concept of the

8Cf. Fn. 3. Caldwell’s hermeneutical interpretation has found few companions. Actually, Caldwell
himself suggests this interpretation only where he is discussing Meier’s reading of Schmitt.

political. More precisely, she contents herself with reviving and actualising his

friend/enemy-discrimination (3.1). The second argument is that Schmitt’s theoretical

concepts are only one part of his philosophical heritage that reflects in Mouffe’s

writings. Additionally we come across sedimentations of the metatheoretical

function he attributes to political theorising itself (3.2).

3.1 The Persistence of Enmity9

Evaluating Mouffe’s recent work as a theoretical revision, the “conflictual consensus”

immediately comes into focus. Here, considerable doubts have been uttered whether

this concept actually provides the key to transform antagonism into agonism

(Kapoor 2002: 472–3; Dryzek 2006: 221; Arditi 2008: 10). Why, exactly, should

opposed groups refrain from using violence when staging their conflicts? The

mitigation of antagonism could take place, of course, on the basis of habits (people are

used to dispense with violence), a regulative idea (e.g. the Kantian one informing

Habermas’s communicative ethics), or a voluntary and rational agreement (e.g. the

collectives believe that they can most effectively oppose their adversaries under the

aegis of the electoral game). Yet, on neither solution Mouffe can draw without

committing the liberal flaws she criticises so fiercely.

Although in some passages Mouffe’s words convey the impression of silently

shifting her approach to politics into one “sub specie consensus,”10 in the end it is

9 Regarding this argument, I tried to answer questions such as: “Is the conflictual consensus a viable
means to organise the transformation of antagonism into agonism?” “Does Mouffe’s revision
effectively dismiss the bellicose tendencies of Schmitt’s concept of the political?” “Does it allow for a
substantially larger pluralism inside a political community?” “Is Mouffe’s revision valuable in terms
of originality?” And “How would a poststructuralist approach tackle the problems surrounding
Schmitt’s concept of the political?”
10 This impression is nourished by the inconsistent use of “antagonism” in her writings. At times,

antagonism is presented as “permanent” (Mouffe 1993: 8) or “ineradicable” (Mouffe 2005c: 12), and
she stresses that liberal political theories are flawed precisely because they negate the “irreducibility of
antagonism” (Mouffe 2005c: 12). She thus propagates the necessity of approaching politics “sub specie
bellum.” On other occasions, however, she speaks only of an “antagonistic potential present in human
relations” (Mouffe 1999b: 4), and antagonism is reduced to an “ever present possibility” (Mouffe
2005c: 13, 15) – a claim that everyone who approaches politics “sub specie consensus” will admit. If
antagonism is a simple possibility, then the possibility of antagonism belongs to our ontological
condition and not antagonism, as she claims (cf. Arditi 2008: 10 Fn. 7).

indeed antagonism which preserves the conflictual consensus in a political

community: it is the common opposition to a third party that affiliates the citizens. That

“the opponent is to be considered as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and

must be tolerated,” applies only “within the context of the political community […].

The category of the »enemy« does not disappear but is displaced” (Mouffe 1993: 4).

Hence, the citizens of a political community form a strategic alliance and are

associated insofar as they are opposed against a greater enemy. Mouffe’s agonistic

community can be imagined as a coalition of pluralist democrats. Religious

fundamentalists, chauvinists, or elitists – in short, everybody who is no pluralist

democrat inside or outside the political collective’s territory – are not adversaries to

be opposed but, again, enemies to be destroyed.11 Accordingly, Mouffe writes “[t]he

category of the »enemy« […] remains pertinent with respect to those who do not

accept the democratic »rules of the game«” (Mouffe 1993: 4), because “[a] democratic

society cannot treat those who put its basic institutions into question as legitimate

adversaries” (Mouffe 2005c: 120).

Even in those passages where Mouffe contemplates about possibilities of taming

antagonism among enemies she argues with rather than against Schmitt. Her call for

confronting enemies not in moral but political terms in order to avoid especially

violent conflicts (Mouffe 2005c: 2, 76-8, 120), and for a “truly global” Jus Publicum

Europaeum (Mouffe 2005c: 116) parallels Schmitt’s own attempts to extricate enmity

from war.12 Finally, Mouffe appears to be inspired by Schmitt terminologically with

11 It is highly misleading when Mouffe writes that “those who do not accept the democratic »rules of
the game« […] thereby exclude themselves from the political community” (Mouffe 1993: 4, emphasis
added). According to the concept of hegemony (Mouffe 2005c: 17–9; cf. Mouffe 1992: 31), there is
always a de facto hegemon who enforces his order, and thereby excludes others from the political
community, if they are not willing to bend to his will.
12 In his self-apologetic preface to the 1963 German edition of The Concept of the Political Schmitt assures

the reader that the decisive challenge is the limitation of war which requires the mutual relativisation
of enmity (Schmitt 2002, 19). In the Theory of the Partisan he points out that by the “relativization of
enmity” he understands the “renunciation of the criminalization of the opponent […], the negation of
absolute enmity”; the abjuration of “a discrimination and denigration of the enemy” (Schmitt 2007:
90). The Westphalian System until the 1815 treaty of Vienna managed, in his view, to provide an
effective Jus Publicum Europaeum and thus to mitigate enmity (Schmitt 2007: 90). Having neglected to
explicitly specify different types of enemies is the reason, Schmitt believes, for the negative reception
of his work. The “enemy” he wanted to talk about is the “real enemy” which is “an enemy who […]

regard to the figure of transforming antagonism into agonism.13 What, then, is the

difference to Schmitt?

Mouffe does not tire to insist that her approach allows for pluralism inside of a

political community, whereas Schmitt’s theory would call for a homogeneous demos

(Mouffe 1999c: 48; Mouffe 2005c: 14). This would mean, first, that Schmitt is state-

centric: the political units are states, whose citizens are internally united as friends

and externally opposed to other states as enemies. The second claim contained is –

moderately formulated – that her concept allows for a substantially greater degree of

pluralism inside a political community. Both claims are hard to accept. On the one

hand, in the very beginning of The Concept of the Political Schmitt criticises the state-

centeredness of the political theorists of his time.14 Moreover, after World War II

Schmitt explicitly acknowledges a diversity of political actors,15 and in a 1963 essay –

also quoted in Mouffe’s writings – he even celebrates the partisan as an important

political subject (Schmitt 2007). There is thus little reason to assume that Schmitt’s

concept forecloses pluralisms other than that of states, neither in terms of possibility

nor legitimacy.

must be compelled only to retreat into his borders,” not one who must be definitively destroyed
(Schmitt 1996: 36–7; also quoted in Schmitt 2007: 93 Fn. 93). The problem however is, as Giovanni
Sartori has pointed out, that Schmitt thus places an incompatible “historical” argument next to his
“logical” one (Sartori 1989: 67 Fn. 7). Mouffe makes no attempts to resolve the paradox, but draws on
both to back up her account. Because of Schmitt’s reflections about possibilities of containing violence,
in any case, Benjamin Arditi criticises Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism for being “not a true innovation”
(Arditi 2008: 10).
13 Schmitt derives the German word “Feind” from “Fehde” (engl.: feud, vendetta), and explains that in

the middle-ages “Fehde” was differentiated into “knightly and non-knightly feud” (“ritterliche und
nicht-ritterliche fehde”). “The knightly feud,“ however, “leads to fixed forms and thereby to treat the
feud opponent in an agonistic way” (“Die ritterliche Fehde,“ however, “führt zu festen Formen und
damit auch zur agonalen Auffassung des Fehdegegners”; Schmitt 2002: 104–5).
14 The first sentence of The Concept of the Political reads “the concept of the state presupposes the

concept of the political” (Schmitt 1996: 19). In the following pages, Schmitt criticises a number of
scholars – Max Weber included – for defining the political and the state by mutual reference and
rejects such attempts as “obviously an unsatisfactory circle” (Schmitt 1996: 20).
15 In his Italian 1972 preface to The Concept of the Political, Schmitt writes: “The new protagonists

become the core of the entire complex of problems called »political«. Here lies the beginning and
thrust of every attempt to recognize the many new subjects of the political, which become active in
political reality, in the politics of the state or nonstate, and which bring about new kinds of friend-
enemy groupings” (Schmitt quoted in Marchart 2007: 42).

On the other hand, considerable doubts arise on whether Mouffe’s concept really

allows for a domestic pluralism of higher quality. In The Concept of the Political,

Schmitt recalls situations when no pluralism could be found within a political

community: in times of absolutism, he argues, the state had the monopoly over the

political (Schmitt 1996: 22). Political affairs within the domestic realm of an absolutist

order were basically limited to police (“Polizei”) in his view. Under absolutist

monarchies, “the political,” Oliver Marchart explains, “is a matter only of the

external politics between states, while internal politics turns into a question of

policing an already established order” (Marchart 2007: 43). Apart from that we are

left with pseudo-political forms of politics that Schmitt calls “Politesse” or “petite

politique,” i.e. courtly intrigues (Schmitt 2002: 117, 120). Yet under conditions of a

democratic community such as the Weimar Republic, Schmitt affirms, significant

antagonisms exist within the domestic realm, too. He refers to the pluralism of

pressure groups supporting specific policies, and especially party politics (Schmitt

1996: 30; cf. also Schmitt 1999). Sure, we will stress that for Schmitt these domestic

conflicts must be less fundamental than the sovereign’s (e.g. democratic

government’s) decision about the order of the political community and its enemies.

But at the same time have perfect reason to conclude that there do exist domestic

contestations for Schmitt, and that the actions of political collectives within the state

cause considerable effects on the constitution of the political community.16 Schmitt is

explicit about this point: “[n]otwithstanding, the state encompasses and relativizes

all these antitheses. However an antithesis and antagonism remain here within the

state’s domain which have relevance for the concept of the political” (Schmitt 1996:

30). Internal conflicts for Schmitt are the expression of secondary friend/enemy-

groupings. The point is, however, that the pluralism Mouffe imagines within a

democratic political community is likewise secondary with regard to the political, as

16Mouffe claims that “[p]olitics is about the constitution of the political community, not something
that takes place inside the political community” (Mouffe 1992: 30). Schmitt’s remarks in The Concept of
the Political suggest that he views politics in the process of constituting the political community (along
with the determination of the enemy) and inside the political community.

the antagonisms among “friends” in Schmitt’s account. The members of Mouffe’s

democratic community share “a form of political identity that is created through

identification with the political principles of modern pluralist democracy” (Mouffe

1992: 30). And because identities are created relationally, the primary political

opposition persists in the democratic community’s constitutive outside – in Mouffe’s

words, in those who do not accept the democratic rules of the game and put its basic

institutions into question.

What Schmitt calls homogeneity, Mouffe calls commonality; and what for Schmitt

is ensured by race, the nation, a religious conviction, arête or civic virtue (Schmitt

2000: 9), for Mouffe is provided by the democratic rules of the game, ethico-political

principles of liberal democracy, res publica, or the assertion of liberty and equality

for all (Mouffe 1992: 30–1; Mouffe 1993: 4, 67; Mouffe 2005c: 32, 52, 122). This sounds

more different than it is because the decisive criterion for both is that the common

bond (and the hegemonic force behind it) is strong enough to hold together people in

a political unit. In Schmitt’s as well as in Mouffe’s account, the primary we/they-

distinction is drawn between different political communities. Domestic pluralism for

both is legitimate and possible, though, in last instance, secondary.

In Mouffe’s account the category of the enemy remains pertinent, and the

category of the friend is called adversary without, however, substantive conceptual

modifications. Obviously, Mouffe does not – or at least not successfully – devise[e]

ways in which antagonism can be transformed into agonism” (Mouffe 1999b: 5). This

surprising result should cast doubts on the interpretation that Mouffe intends a

conceptual revision. What additionally nourishes this suspicion is that her

poststructuralist theoretical background would provide her with viable tools to

eliminate the bellicose tendencies in Schmitt’s concept of the political. Before I

proceed to the second argument for dismissing the interpretation of a conceptual

revision, I will outline such a poststructuralist revision with a few brief strokes.

Proceeding from the assumption that (political) identities form relationally, it

stands out clearly that no universal identity could ever exist, because every identity

requires a constitutive outside. Assuming furthermore that identities are not

essentially given, but construed – as Mouffe stresses and as she believes that Schmitt

anticipates (Mouffe 2005c: 14–5)17 – the central questions are who or what the

opposed “other” is and how it can be confronted. It seems to me at this point that

Mouffe providing two essentialist-Schmittian answers which are at odds with the

poststructuralist logic. One is to locate the “other” in a collective of people. The

second is to assume it natural and effective to fight the “other” in its physical

existence. To recall, Schmitt spells out bluntly this idea by emphasising that

oppositions are political because and insofar as they are existential and include the

possibility of physical killing. Mouffe, for her part, makes no attempts to reject this

claim and in fact implicitly asserts it when she says that Schmitt’s category of the

enemy remains pertinent. Now, why should we accept these answers?

First, there is no need to equate the “who/what” of the other with the human

(Derrida 1995: 268–9; cf. Wenman 2003c: 60). According to the assumption that all

identities are relational, the opposed other is literally “other.” It can be a human

being or a group of people, but also an animal, a plant, or a stone. The opposed

subject may be a more or less fictive “other” as the beast in William Golding’s novel

Lord of the Flies, or the aliens in Roland Emmerich’s science-fiction film Independence

Day. Arguably, the “other” might even be a rather abstract entity, for instance, an

uncontrolled nature, industrialisation, or capitalism. Finally, a political collective

could put itself into opposition to its own history, as illustrates the case of the Federal

Republic of Germany.18

17 Gabriella Slomp comes to the same conclusion: “identity is not given a priori or fixed. For Schmitt,
real politics is an Orwellian, never-ending series of shifting alliances and changing identities” (Slomp
2007: 208). Caldwell, however, reminds that in his Nazi-writings Schmitt perceived Jews to be “made
differently,” and in other occasions suggested that the French Revolution was in parts the
achievement of a preexisting national identity (Caldwell 2005: 367, 382).
18 I am indebted to Ursula Jasper for having raised this point.

Second, it is only of limited sense to fight the other in its physical existence

(granted that it actually has one in the concrete case). The political issue concerns the

socio-political function of the “other,” i.e. his/her/it’s perceived hegemonic or in any

case too strong influence on the social world. The effective target of action from the

perspective of the “we” is the “other’s” subject position in discourse, not the

constitutive outside itself, and especially not the bearers of this identity in their

physical existence. We know good enough that throughout history people availed

themselves of physical violence in order to reduce the socio-political influence of the

respective “other.” But we also know that to destroy an idea or to change a state of

affairs by attacking its advocates does not always prove particularly effective.

Sometimes, it can even cause counterproductive effects, as the history of Socrates,

Jesus, or Giordano Bruno teaches.19

3.2 Polemics – Schmitt’s Metatheoretical Heritage

At the Nuremberg trial, Carl Schmitt emphatically affirmed that during the Nazi-

Regime he had offered diagnostics of problems, not recommendations (Quaritsch

2000: 53). He thus took refuge – as Caldwell expresses it – in the claim of pure science

(Caldwell 2005: 382). Schmitt’s apologia falls beyond the pale already because

intellectuals have a certain duty to accept responsibility for what they do in their

professional capacity. Moreover, even on indulgent contemporaries his haranguing

about Jews made the impression of “crude outbursts of political hate” (Quaritsch

2000: 53), and not of “scholarly thes[e]s” (Schmitt quoted in Quaritsch 2000: 55), as

Schmitt retrospectively vindicated. Most importantly, however, in The Concept of the

Political, Schmitt forthrightly denies the very possibility of offering dispassionate

diagnostics. He stresses that “all political concepts, images and terms have a

19The fate of these persons additionally suggests that one should not expect too much from Schmitt’s
and Mouffe’s idea to domesticate hostility by framing conflicts not in moral but in political terms.
Bruno’s problem, for instance, was probably not so much that he was accused of being an ally of evil
(instead of being an enemy of the constitution), although the church might have perceived his
activities – as heresy in general – primarily as a political and worldly danger. His problem was rather
that the inquisitors and Pope Clement VIII opted for the strategy of countering the subversive effects
of his activities by extinguishing him.

polemical meaning” (Schmitt 1996: 30). Theorising, of course, is never a neutral act;

all theory has normative implication. Yet, Schmitt goes beyond this truism. A

political concept, he argues, is “incomprehensible if one does not know exactly who

is to be affected, combated, refuted, or negated by such a term” (Schmitt 1996: 31).

Due to the function that Schmitt thus attributes to political theorising, The Concept of

the Political, as well as his other political writings, get an interesting twist. Polemics

are intrinsically appurtenant to diagnostics. They actually turn out to be the primary

purpose of his political theorising. Like few others, Schmitt fields his methodology as

a political strategy: “Schmitt calculates on his ability to persuade, and to persuade

becomes the only function of his rhetoric […] the nexus of Schmitt’s arguments is […]

ideology” (Hefler 1999: 250, 276).

Against this backdrop an alternative way of making sense of Mouffe’s recent

work announces itself: instead of interpreting Mouffe’s recent work as a conceptual

revision of Schmitt’s friend/enemy-discrimination, we could approach it as an

application of Schmitt’s remarks about the function of political theorising. Her

considerations on Schmitt and the political would have to be interpreted as polemical

interventions in contemporary political discourse.

Unfortunately, Mouffe does not explicitly address methodological questions.

Furthermore, she makes no words about Schmitt’s remarkable contemplations about

the use of concepts. Mouffe is certainly a good reader of Schmitt, and an especially

good one of The Concept of the Political. But what suggests that she does not simply

ignore Schmitt’s remarks about the function of political theorising? Are there any

indications that beyond concepts such as antagonism, relational identities, and

antagonism’s taming, Mouffe intends to sustain the metatheoretical facet of the

philosophical heritage of Schmitt, too? There are indeed some indications.

First, on some occasions Mouffe takes an explicitly partisan stance. In her speech

Exodus or War of Position? Which Future for Radical Politics?20 Mouffe introduces to

20“Exodus or War of Position? Which Future for Radical Politics?” speech held on 26. 2. 2004 at the
conference „Public Art Policies. Progressive Kunstinstitutionen im Zeitalter der Auflösung des
Wohlfahrtsstaates,“ in Vienna (Austria). The speech has been published in a German translation by

three basic pillars upon which a renewed project of the left should rest. One policy

recommendation refers to the cut in working hours and a policy of redistribution

among permanent employees. Moreover, she visions the development of a “pluralist

economy” (instead of a free market system), and finally calls for the introduction of a

basic income (Mouffe 2005a: 57–61). However, her statements about the articulation

and organisation of a counter-hegemonic project against the neo-liberal (world) order

arguably lack a tight connection to her theoretical discussion of the concept of the

political. On other occasions Mouffe criticises populist right-wing parties for evoking

“essentialist forms of identification,” “non-negotiable moral values,” or xenophobia –

hence, identity patterns that Mouffe rejects for their exclusiveness (Mouffe 1993: 4;

Mouffe 2005c: 30, 71). Not least, in On the Political Mouffe even characterises her

central aim as a “political” one: “Although an important part of my argument is of a

theoretical nature, my central aim is a political one” (Mouffe 2005c: 9). But given that

she characterises this political aim as providing an “approach which will enable us to

grasp the challenges with which democratic politics is today confronted” (Mouffe

2005c: 9), doubts will endure whether this is actually the kind of polemics Schmitt

had in mind.21

Second, Mouffe makes use of essentialisms. This is, of course, no rare

phenomenon in academics; but one will not expect it in a purportedly anti-

essentialist approach (e.g. Mouffe 1993: vii, 71, 75, 86, 87; Mouffe 1992: 28; Mouffe

1999a: series description; Mouffe 2005c: 4). While it is odd enough that Mouffe makes

use of essentialisms, it is telling that her use of essentialisms is indeed excessive. She

frequently speaks of the pluralist, discursive, or conflictual “nature” of social life,

citizenship, or democracy (e.g. Mouffe 1993: 2, 117; Mouffe 2005c: 17, 54, 56, 83, 120).

She tells us how things are “by essence” or “essentially” (e.g. Mouffe 2005c: 18;

Oliver Marchart under the title Exodus und Stellungskrieg. Die Zukunft radikaler Politik (2005a). My
references refer to this edition.
21 Applying Schmitt’s considerations on the polemic function of concepts to this passage would mean

that the terms “democracy” and “challenges” are intended to have polemical implications. While I
will precisely suggest this to be the case (see below), Mouffe’s disclosure of her “political” intentions
adds up to warning against objective dangers and creating tools for being better able to analyse and
control them. This does not seem particularly partisan.

Mouffe 1993: 30), and reminds us of questionable “facts” (e.g. Mouffe 1993: 8, 33, 70,

104, 111, 115; Mouffe 2005c: 15, 31. 38). Mouffe hardly intends to express serious

truth-claims with such formulations. Some of them might stem from habit or self-

mockery.22 But the bulk of essentialisms will not, and can neither be simply

condoned because they render the reading easier and more attractive. Consciously

employed essentialisms indicate a strong rhetorical impetus. They are discursive

weapons. By tracing, for instance, the effects of a thing to one cause (it’s “essence”),

complexity is reduced; less efforts must be expended to reflection, more time is left

for drawing the (theoretical or practical) consequences. When Mouffe makes use of

essentialisms she simulates a false scientificity that shall help her to facitilitate “de-

contestation” (Freeden 2005: 188) in the competition over the control of political


Mouffe’s intention to de-contest basic concepts is especially evident in the case of

“the political.” Mouffe makes clear that she understands the political not in terms of

consensus, freedom, or deliberation but power, conflict, and antagonism (Mouffe

2005c: 9). She urgently calls for acknowledging the political as she understands it

(Mouffe 1993: 4, 6, 7; Mouffe 2005c: 2), and to provide channels for allowing conflicts

to be staged in agonistic ways (Mouffe 2005c: 21, 69, 71).23 And, of course, she stresses

the ineradicability of conflict – i.e. the political – in social life (e.g. Mouffe 1993: vii, 1,

6; Mouffe 2005c: 3, 4, 10, 19, 119). At the same time, Mouffe cautions the reader

against its elimination: “it is indeed the political which is at stake here,” she writes in

The Return of the Political, “and the possibility of its elimination” (Mouffe 1993: 1). The

political, of course, cannot be eliminated if it is ineradicable. Cancellable are only the

conditions for a vibrant public sphere where citizens can oppose each other, and it is

22 At least in one example Mouffe displays a delightful sense of humour: “[s]everal contemporary
theoretical currents converge in stressing how participation in a community of language is the sine
qua non of the construction of human identity and allow us to formulate the social and political nature
of man in a non-essentialist way” (Mouffe 1993: 57, emphasis added).
23 Obviously, channels to stage conflicts in an non-violent way are the conditio sine qua non of any

political order which is not an anarchy or exclusively based on oppression. Dissafection with politics,
populist movements, and terroristic organisations stem from the (perceived) lack of institutionalised
channels to make their voice efficiently heard.

this what we must fear to lose. So, “the political” from the beginning does not simply

stand for antagonism, but is brought into close connection, nearly equated with

pluralism, individual liberty rights, and the taming of antagonism that is necessary

for the functioning of democracy. By affirming the importance to acknowledge the

political, to provide channels for it, and by warning against its elimination, Mouffe

indirectly strikes a blow for more tolerance in favour of pluralism. Agonistic

pluralism is not the result of a reconceptualisation but the partisan goal from which

she starts off, and which she intends to propagate in her writings. Only rarely Mouffe

insinuates that the pluralism and political conflict she calls “our ontological

condition” (Mouffe 1993: 3; Mouffe 2005c: 16) actually is the value she strives to

promote. In one passage the bone of contention becomes nonetheless palpable: in For

an Agonistic Public Sphere she complains that due to the dominance of “post-political”

visions “[a]ll those who put into question the very possibility of such a rational

consensus and who affirm that the political is a domain in which one should always

rationally expect to find discord are accused of undermining the very possibility of

democracy” (Mouffe 2005b: 124).

Third, Mouffe’s emphasis on “the political” points to her appropriation of

Schmitt’s metatheoretical heritage according to which political theorising always has

a polemical function. While Schmitt affirms that concepts such as “class,”

“absolutism,” or “total state” cannot be simply descriptive terms (Schmitt 1996: 30–

1), he goes as far as claiming that the “political” is especially susceptible to

polemicisation. The term “political” itself, according to his view, has no existence

outside of a polemical practice:

“[a]bove all the polemical character determines the use of the word political
regardless of whether the adversary is designated as nonpolitical (in the sense of
harmless), or vice versa if one wants to disqualify or denounce as political in
order to portray oneself as nonpolitical (in the sense of purely scientific, purely
moral, purely juristic, purely aesthetic, purely economic, or on the basis of similar
purities) and thereby superior” (Schmitt 1996: 31–2).

As Benjamin Arditi and Jeremy Valentine point out, Schmitt perceived the non-

political to enjoy superiority over the political in his day, and intended to change this

situation (Arditi and Valentine 1999: 38).24 Mouffe, for her part, criticises sociologists

(like Ulrich Beck), politicians (like Tony Blair), and intellectuals (like Antonio Negri

and Michael Hardt) for embracing post-political consensus-models (Mouffe 2005c:

48, 60-1, 110). The main political parties promote a non-political understanding of

politics, she contends, by reducing it to “spinning” (Mouffe 2005c: 63). Major current

problems of our democratic societies are the consequence of their post-political

thinking and acting, for instance: public-private – supposedly harmonious –

partnerships “with the state putting up the money for investments and the

entrepreneurs reaping the profits […] with the citizens […] suffering accordingly!”

(Mouffe 2005c: 63). Likewise, the growth of right-wing populisms in Europe results

from the delegitimation of partisanry and the resulting lack to have a real choice

between significantly different policies (Mouffe 2005c: 66). Saturating public

discourse with non-political mindsets one should not wonder that citizens

increasingly become disaffected with politics and desist from participating in

elections (Mouffe 2005c: 63). Mouffe suggests even that George W. Bush’s strategy of

waging a “war against terrorism” was not political, and in any case far from being

akin to Schmitt’s friend/enemy-discrimination. His was a moralistic, universalist, and

therefore inherently antipluralist enterprise that similarly stems from a consensus-

oriented way of thinking, according to which any opposition is illegitimate (Mouffe

2005c: 77–9). The consequence about which Mouffe claims to warn us, is the

destabilisation of democracy and the spread of violent conflicts. If we would

acknowledge “the political,” by contrast, if we would get ourselves into thinking and

acting in a political – i.e. partisan and pluralist – manner, we could avert the danger

that citizens completely lose faith in democratic and non-violent procedures (Mouffe

2005c: 63). With all this, Mouffe gives a broad hint that she intends to embark on

Schmitt’s strategy of polemicising the term “the political” itself.

24According to Arditi and Valentine this polemical strategy amounts to the “autopolemicization of the
concept” (Arditi and Valentine 1999: 38).

Who takes the line that Mouffe carries out a conceptual revision of Schmitt’s political,

and assesses it according to criteria such as logical consistency, viability, and

originality, has a hard time growing fond of it: because the absence of a conceptual

revision of Schmitt’s political theory, and not least because her emphasis on the

necessity to acknowledge the political in her way systematically begs the question.

Her decision for reviving Schmitt’s political thought is of course courageous. And

there is no doubt that her selective reading of Schmitt’s work and the application of

his concepts to current circumstances is innovative enough and highly inspiring. But

we should keep in mind that she falls short of her pledge to part company with

Schmitt, and disregards the possibility of consequently heading a revision in a

poststructuralist direction.

That Schmitt explicitly attributes a polemical function to political theorising, and

especially to the use of the term “political,” lends further credence to the view that

Mouffe’s purpose does not consist in a conceptual revision, and leads us to consider

the possibility that apart from the friend/enemy-discrimination, Mouffe has

appropriated Schmitt’s metatheoretical heritage, too. Examining her dialogue with

Schmitt on this possibility, sufficient evidence can be found that Mouffe indeed

systematically aims at polemicising against third way thinking and a politics beyond

left and right; Blair’s New Labour, Beck’s reflexive modernisation, Hardt and Negri’s

multitude are not so much theoretically challenged as they are polemically

delegitimised. Nevertheless, her polemic is far from being trite and unpersuasive.

Particularly fascinating I find that Mouffe launches her polemic through a

reconsideration of Schmitt’s polemical conceptualisation of the political, and, thus,

provides us with a nearly congenial application of the function that Schmitt

attributes to political theorising.

4 Concluding Remarks

In an interview with Ian Angus, Chantal Mouffe remembers “I became a Gramscian

when I ceased to be an Althusserian. And, in fact, Gramsci was for me a way to find a

different approach” (Angus n.d.). Labelling seldom proves particularly useful, and it

is not my purpose now to label Mouffe a Schmittian from the 1990s onwards. Suffice

that there is a Chantal Mouffe who engages in a dialogue with Schmitt in a number

of writings, and gets inspired thereby to think about politics in a special way. She

appropriates portions of his terminology, parts of his theoretical framework, and

some of its immanent paradoxes and aporias. But what makes her dialogue with

Schmitt so special is that the heritage Schmitt passes on Mouffe exceeds the

conceptual cosmos: she gets inspired by his methodological considerations, too,

which answer the question “what’s the purpose of theory?” by reference to


Like sophistry and rhetoric, polemics often has a derogatory connotation in daily

and academic usage. Polemics, from one stance, is not concerned with truth and

justice, but instead opinion and defamation. It relies on discursive weapons and not

on the force of reason. There are, however, others who reject a strong

dichotomisation of truth and opinion. Chaïm Perelman suggests, for instance, that

even those scholars who appeal to truth, objectivity, or reason employ such appeals

strategically and for rhetorical purposes: they construct an allegedly universal

audience in order to persuade a particular one (Perelman 1963: 169). Subsequently,

one might conclude that what makes for good scholarship are not consistent theories,

viable concepts, and original revisions but simply effective arguments, i.e. arguments

that are capable to “induce or […] increase the mind’s adherence to the theses

presented for its assent” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 2000: 4). The readers cease

to be observers of an exercise in political thought and instead become partners in a

dialogue with the author; it might therefore be not particularly relevant whether the

25 The question of whether the polemical character of Mouffe’s dialogue with Schmitt is exclusively
linked with her intellectual experience with Schmitt clearly exceeds this investigation. By intuition,
however, I would say that earlier works lack this tendency, that, for instance, Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy primarily is directed towards renewing Marxist theory – and should thus legitimately be
interpreted as a conceptual revision. Given, however, that the relation of theory and practice in
Marxist and Gramscian thought is extraordinary in a similar way, there might be excavated certain
parallels. In any case, the question of whether and in how far we come across the author Mouffe, as
characterised in this article, in earlier, co-authored, or feminist writings, too, seems worthy of

arguments match specific logical modalities (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 2000:

163). Suffice that they are suitable to mobilise the addressed audience’s passions.

As is often the case, so this article, too, raises more questions than it is able to

provide answers. Obviously, even scholars who reject the dichotomisations of

truth/opinion, fact/value, conviction/persuasion, etc. will advocate claims, and not

merely place their intervention equitably next to any other opinion. How should we

characterise such claims, then? Certainly not truth claims, but arguably neither

validity claims hit the point. Moreover, why does Mouffe apparently desist from

providing a conceptual revision of Schmitt’s political, given that we know good

enough that – and especially with regard to academic audiences – logical

consistency, viability, and originality quite effectively increase the readers’

adherence? A possible, though speculative answer is that doing so she would be led

to conclusions which badly fit into her polemical programme.26 Not least, questions

arise on whether this investigation faces an interpretative problem of regress. It was

argued that in certain writings a political theorist (Mouffe) launches a polemic over

the work of another political theorist (Schmitt) who, again, took pleasure in

polemicising. Furthermore, it was suggested that polemicising over a polemic might

be evaluated consequent, congenial perhaps. Of what character, then, would be an

appropriate argument by a third scholar (me)? Finally, might the choice of the subject

matter prompt us (the readers) to conclude that the present article has a polemical

dimension likewise?

Be it as it may, I believe that we should keep in mind that diverging

metatheoretical conceptions exist and accordingly will underlie exercises in political

thought. And apart from which position we reckon plausible, the function attributed

to theorising should be taken into account when interpreting and evaluating another

writer’s text – at least, if one is to do justice to the author’s intentions. In this article I

26If the constitutive outside of a political opposition, as I argued before (3.1), needs not be human, the
pluralism Mouffe intends to promote will not be a plausible claim. However, given that Mouffe
desists from conceptually revising Schmitt’s concept of the political, we can only speculate about her

argued that we have good reasons to interpret Mouffe’s recent work in terms of an

actualisation of Schmitt’s friend/enemy-discrimination with the purpose of

polemicising against purportedly neutral thinking and acting. In consequence, we

might legitimately criticise her on metatheoretical grounds, or for the partisan goal

she adapts, and we can do that out of (ethico-)political, moral, or aesthetic reasons.

Moreover, we might assess her argumentative persuasiveness and thus ask whether

her strategy is likely to obtain the adherence of her audiences’ minds. And, while the

assessment of the latter may sample out ambiguously, I believe, the coherent

application of Schmitt’s polemical strategy could well be considered elaborate. In any

case, there is little sense in pitting these writings against traditional requirements for

a conceptual revision such as logical consistency, originality, or viability, given that a

conceptual revision is not what is aimed at. On Jakob Taubes’s reproach that every

lecturer commenting on Schmitt would get the urge to give him a kick, I might

answer “you’re right” or “you’re wrong;” but most of us will see little use in the

answer “your Italian is miserable” – except, of course, for reasons of counter-



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