Agonism: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Agonism is a political theory which emphasises the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict. It accepts a permanent place for such conflict, but seeks to show how we might accept and channel this positively. For this reason, agonists are especially concerned to intervene in debates about democracy. The tradition is also referred to as agonistic pluralism.


Agonism and other traditions in political thought

Agonists are sceptical about the capacity of politics to eliminate, overcome or circumvent deep divisions within our society - of class, culture, gender, ideology and so on. As such, they find liberalism, communitarianism and multiculturalism wanting. These theories - which have been the backbone of political theory for the past thirty years - are essentially optimistic about the possibility of finding a harmonious and peaceful pattern of political and social cooperation. Agonists, then, both claim that this optimism is unjustified and, hence, re-orientate political theory to another question: how should we deal with irreducible difference? In the view of agonists, proponents of the aforementioned traditions, in keeping their eyes fixed on forms of utopian cooperation, have failed to respond usefully to the messiness of contemporary political practice.

Agonism is also opposed to an important strand in the Marxist conception of politics known as 'materialism'. Marx would have agreed with the agonists that society had always been full of conflict, when he wrote: 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' [1]. He also thought that the causes of conflict were inescapable features of present - i.e. capitalist - society. But, in his view, history would develop in such a way as to eventually destroy capitalism, and replace it with a harmonious society - which was his conception of communism. Especially during the 1960s and '70s many people, academics included, subscribed to a roughly Marxist analysis. Since then, many of those people have come to the view that the 'materialist conception of history' [2] does not give sufficient reason for hope about a harmonious society to come. Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are amongst those who have come to agonism from a background in Marxism and the social movements of the middle part of the last century [3].

Thus, agonism can be seen as a response to the perceived failures of strands of idealism and materialism to accord with reality, and to provide useful responses to contemporary problems. It can also, in some sense, be seen as a development of theories which emphasised, even celebrated conflict, in a potentially less sensitive and responsible manner than agonism. For examples, see Carl Schmitt's essay The Concept of the Political and certain readings of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. In any case, it is clear that any conception of the political which involves a celebration of conflict may entail an endorsement of the domination of some portion of society over others. Agonism, in opposition to any such trend, is avowedly pluralist in its political outlook. It sees political tensions as having an essential place in society, but believes that they should be approached discursively, not in an attempt to eliminate 'the other'.

Agonism, the role of conflict, and democracy

Agonists believe that we should design democracy so as to optimise the opportunity for people to express their disagreements. However, they also maintain, we should not assume that conflict can be eliminated given sufficient time for deliberation and rational agreement. In other words, conflict has a non-rational or emotional component. These two positions mean that they are opposed to aspects of consociational and deliberative theories of democracy. The former, because it wants to mute conflict through elite consensus, the latter because it gives a rationalist picture of the aspirations of democracy.

Chantal Mouffe says, 'I use the concept of agonistic pluralism to present a new way to think about democracy which is different from the traditional liberal conception of democracy as a negotiation among interests and is also different from the model which is currently being developed by people like Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. While they have many differences, Rawls and Habermas have in common the idea that the aim of the democratic society is the creation of a consensus, and that consensus is possible if people are only able to leave aside their particular interests and think as rational beings. However, while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.' [4]

Agonism, not antagonism

Agonism is not simply the undifferentiated celebration of antagonism:

Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented not merely toward victory or defeat, but emphasizing the importance of the struggle itself-a struggle that cannot exist without the opponent. Victory through forfeit or default, or over an unworthy opponent, comes up short compared to a defeat at the hands of a worthy opponent-a defeat that still brings honor. An agonistic discourse will therefore be one marked not merely by conflict but just as importantly, by mutual admiration
Political theorist Samuel Chambers [5]

Bonnie Honig, perhaps agonism's most prominent advocate, writes: 'to affirm the perpetuity of the contest is not to celebrate a world without points of stabilization; it is to affirm the reality of perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting, and to identify the affirmative dimension of contestation.' (Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p15) [6]

Critics of Agonistic Pluralism

Critics of agonistic pluralist political theory may not neccessarily disagree with this school of social and political thought's ethical aims and objectives. However, there are several possible alternatives. Foucauldian governmentality theory deals with interest group use of particular ensembles (or apparatuses) of discourse to produce a new context for the emergence of new subjects and identity positions. These may be negative or positive. For example, Yugoslavia's disintegration produced several new national identities within its successor states and within specific ethnic enclaves within those successor states.

Governmentality requires civil society to operate effectively, although Foucault and allied theorists do not regard civil society as an avenue of liberty against statist intrusion, but as a partial creation of particular forms of governmentality. However, governmentality should not be solely identified with the state, judicial or formal representative democratic institutions. It may include such discourses as visible traces but does not solely restrict itself to them and may include the work of civil servants, administrative professionals, political theorists, economists, religious or nontheist ethical theorists and others who seek to create new political subjects [1]

Over time, Michel Foucault and other governmentality advocates argued for disarticulation of some subject identities as the set of discourses that constituted them drifted apart, or realigned. Thus, "Yugoslav" national identity became impossible after the demise of communist ensembles of subject formation and maintenance, leading to the rise of new apparatuses of discourse to enable formation and governing of new subject positions. This does recognise that antagonisms exist, but may not always be tractable.

New identity and subject formations and positions are the result of interaction and particular tactical and strategic configurations. Therefore, 'agonistic pluralism' may only describe a particular moment of political debate as opposed to providing an overall descriptive theory. This limits its explanatory and descriptive value, compared to alternative theoretical models.

Deliberative democracy is a second alternative model to the one that is advanced in the context of agonistic pluralism. It focuses attention on the establishment of democratic consensus through public participation within formal institutions, whether as formal opportunities within existing representative democracy or within the context of newly constituted public forums within civil society that consider and deliberate public issues. It emphasises collaboration and adaptation as an alternative to agonist models.

Writers in the agonist tradition


Writers who have identified as agonist or as agonistic pluralists

Writers who have inspired contemporary agonists

Influences Active on Critics of the Agonist Model=

Agonism in Fiction

The Science fiction novel "Lady of Mazes", by Karl Schroeder, depicts a post human future where the ruling principle of the solar system is explicitly "Agonistics". This is defined in the story as "You can compete, and you can win, but you can never win once-and-for-all". A character provides two examples as a presidency with term limits, and laws to prevent against corporate monopolies.[2]


  1. ^ Michel Foucault: "Governmentality" in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Miller (ed) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality: London: Harvester: 1991
  2. ^ Karl Schroeder Lady of Mazes, Tor, ISBN 0765312190

External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address