BOOK REVIEW ON THE POLITICAL (CHANTAL MOUFFE – 2005) Mouffe, C.

(2005), On the political, London / New York: Routledge, 144 p. (ISBN: 0 415 30521 7) On the political challenges the idea that we are nowadays living in a post-political era. Chantal Mouffe calls for a renewed appreciation of ‘the political’, the left-right divide, and the idea of a multipolar international world. Mouffe’s point of departure is clear and simple: human society is essentially political. With explicit reference to Carl Schmitt’s 1932 book The concept of the political, she defines the latter concept as antagonism. Human beings have a need to identify. We feel an urge ‘to belong’, and our ‘we-group’ is always defined in relation to a ‘they-group’. Humankind cannot escape these we/they oppositions. The book does not really specify why this is so. Mouffe only suggest, drawing on Lacan, that affective motives might play a much larger part in the political process than do rational or instrumental causes. We are referred to Lacan1 who speaks of the joy that the group identification supposedly provides us with. In a further elaboration, the author claims that, although we can never eliminate ‘the political’, it should be possible to sublimate it. By this she means to say that the antagonism has to be transformed into an agonism. The ever imminent friend/enemy relations have to be replaced by an adversarial model for human society. This move toward agonism allows for group identification (which is unavoidable anyway), while at the same time getting rid of the violent nature of antagonism. After laying down these theoretical foundations, Mouffe goes on to apply her ideas to two social – one domestic and one international – phenomena. She describes how various fashionable social paradigms deny the antagonistic dimension of human co-existence. According to her, there lies a great danger within this denial. Above that, she claims that post-political theorists have a wrong understanding of democracy. This might well be the most painful point of criticism that those thinkers can be charged with. In a first application the author discusses the rise and the growing success of extreme right political parties throughout Europe. These parties seem to achieve their greatest successes in those countries where the substantive differences between traditional democratic parties have become insignificant. The traditional parties act as if a universal consensus exists on the fundamental political questions. All that is left to debate is the question of appropriate means. The desired goals are beyond deliberation. Politics, in this way, becomes a technical matter. Dissatisfied citizens are thus left without a true alternative to identify with. This paves the way for right wing populist parties, that can now present themselves as anti-establishment and hence be a real alternative. Post-political politics focusing on consensus are a breeding ground for extreme right populism. Moreover, it doesn’t live up to its own promises. Indeed, the antagonistic dimension of human society has not disappeared. Whereas the antagonism used to be political (left/right) it is now played out in the moral register (good/evil). Chantal Mouffe speaks of the ‘moralization’ of ‘the political’, and she does so unappreciatively. The moralizing momentum is a negative process because it makes it harder to transform the antagonism into an agonism. The devil is not up for proper conversation.

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Mouffe does not cite Lacan’s original work, but refers to Yannis Stavrakakis, ‘Passions of Identification: Discourse, Enjoyment and European identity’ in D. Howarth and J. Torfing (eds.), Discourse Theory and European Politics (London, Palgrave, forthcoming).

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Mouffe wishes to provoke! She wants to persuade us! (And she does. Neither on the domestic level. Chantal Mouffe recognizes that this possibility is forever imminent. Indeed. but she does so in the most clear and understandable way. if we adopt this (critical?) stance. of course. If one follows Mouffe in casting aside the yearning for consensus. one need of course not blindly accept the agonistic model. However. corresponds to the substance of her argument. honour and exploit the antagonism). limited pluralism as a defining feature. We can only hope that Mouffe will come around to formulate convincing answers to these questions in a next book. the question remains if agonism is a satisfying condition. to question what once was certain. she fails to suggest how to avert it. Poststructuralism and International relations). Moreover. the author defends the creation of a multipolar world. the author does not manage to come up with a convincing answer to this question. Do we experience enough jouissance when involved in agonism? Will we accept dealing with mere adversaries? How will we be able to prevent adversaries from becoming enemies. for example. 120: The pluralism that I advocate requires discriminating between demands which are to be accepted as part of the agonistic debate and those which are to be excluded. Furthermore. Mouffe has chosen to write in a very accessible style. (p. to challenge the boundaries of conventional thought. Not only are her ideas insightful and original. Mouffe reminds us that antagonism has not disappeared at all from international politics. The agonistic model has.) In my view. The correctness and/or the desirability of this proposed alternative have to be questioned. Nevertheless. International terrorism in general. the book is a must read. Denying the antagonistic dimension of politics will never go unpunished. If intellectuals have the task to cast doubt on accepted truths. the axis of evil). can thus be interpreted as a reaction to the (putative) international.On the international plane. probably very deliberately so. On the political is a work of top quality. The short book (144 pages. and the events of 11 September 2001 in particular. including notes and index) is namely a blend of a philosophical essay and a political pamphlet. She might not be the first to discuss ‘the political’ (see for example: Jenny Edkins (1999). she also manages to communicate them in a brilliant fashion. and parallel to her analysis of extreme right. It almost seems as if she chooses to instantly apply her own prescriptions (to recognize. neo-liberal consensus. This strikes her as the only viable option in establishing a more legitimate world order. Pluralism is limited to the extent that the value of democracy can never be denied. People speaking out in favour of some form of cosmopolitanism – always on the basis of the supposedly superior liberal democratic values – fail to grasp the hegemonic nature of their enterprise. {Jorg Kustermans} 2 .) It remains unclear if we will ever be able to escape the present neo-liberal domination. The book is stimulating and it makes the reader reflect on his/her own beliefs. (While throughout the text it becomes very obvious that Mouffe explicitly wants to challenge this neo-liberal hegemony.) This. It is only referred to the realm of morality (rogue states. nor on the international level. Chantal Mouffe is an example to be followed.

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