Notes and commentary on Chantal Mouffe’s “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?”

Mouffe, Chantal. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?” Social Research 66.3 (Fall 1999): 745-758.


Chantal Mouffe’s article discusses two competing methods of envisioning an extensive (and thus radical) democracy. She confronts the theorists of “deliberative democracy”, particularly Jurgen Habermas, but also summarizes her own epistemological position of “agonistic pluralism”. Her article is clear and succinct, and she writes (as usual) with precise, relatively jargon-free prose. However, Mouffe’s critique tends to simplify Habermas’ position too strongly, and she succumbs to the either-or mentality to which she believes her opponents fall victim.

Habermas’s “deliberative democracy”, as typified by Seyla Benhabib (and summarized by Mouffe), identifies three central elements as the foundation of its theory:

“1. Participation in such deliberation is governed by the norms of equality and symmetry; all have the same chance to initiate speech acts, to question, interrogate, and to open debate;
2. All have the right to question the assigned topics of conversation;
3. All have the right to initiate reflexive arguments about the very rules of the discourse procedure and the way in which they are applied or carried out. There are no prima facie rules limiting the agenda or the conversation, nor the identity of the participants, as long as each excluded person or group can justifiably show that they are relevantly affected by the proposed norm under question” (747)

Mouffe admits that Habermas and his followers don’t deny that there are obstacles to an “ideal discourse”, difficulties which are particular and contingent. According to Mouffe, this means that Habermasians now conceive of the ideal speech situation as a “regulative idea” (748). Moreover, “Habermas now accepts that there are issues that have to remain outside the practices of rational public debates like existential issues that concern not questions of justice but of the good life, or conflicts between interests groups about distributive problems that can only be resolved by means of compromises” (ibid). Nevertheless, Mouffe points out, Habermas still insists that “‘this differentiation within the field of issues that require political decisions negates neither the prime importance of moral considerations nor the practicability of rational debate as the very form of political communication’ [Habermas, 1991, p. 448]” (ibid).

Mouffe explains that Habermas considers his approach to be superior to Rawls’ because of Habermas’ “strictly procedural character which allow him to ‘leave more questions open because it entrusts more to the process of rational opinion and will formation’ [Habermas, 1995, p. 130]” (748).

Mouffe points to many other theorists to buttress her response. She deploys Wittgenstein as a key weapon against deliberative democracy. For Wittgenstein, procedural rules “are always abridgments of practices, they are inseparable of specific forms of life. Therefore, distinctions between ‘procedural’ and ‘substantial’ or between ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ that are central to the Habermasian approach cannot be maintained and one must acknowledge that procedures always involve substantial ethical commitments” (749). If we accept Wittgenstein’s “form of life (Lebensform)” (which is the foundation for consensus rather than rational dialogue), then such “an approach requires reintroducing into the process of deliberation the whole rhetorical dimension that the Habermasian discourse perspective is precisely at pains to eliminate” (ibid). As a result, consensus is always provisional, and should be viewed warily rather than positively. Mouffe argues, paraphrasing Stanley Cavell’s critique of Rawls, that the “deprivation of a voice in the conversation of justice can be the work of the moral consensus itself” (750). Mouffe also employs Lacan’s point of view (via Zizek) to bolster her perspective: A “Lacanian approach reveals how discourse itself in its fundamental structure is authoritarian since out of the free-floating dispersion of signifiers, it is only through the intervention of a master signifier that a consistent field of meaning can emerge” (751). In other words, consensus is the result of a particular and temporary constellation of forces, assumptions and discourses, and cannot exist without exclusion and Otherness.

With her critique finished, Mouffe moves on to an alternative way of conceptualizing democracy. What “I am proposing here is the need to acknowledge the dimension of power and antagonism and their ineradicable character…. there can never be total emancipation but only partial ones…. any social objectivity is ultimately political and that it has to show the traces of exclusion that governs its constitution” (752).

She goes on to claim that

“Political practice in a democratic society does not consist in defending the rights of preconstituted identities, but rather in constituting those identities themselves in a precarious and always vulnerable terrain. According to such a view, democracy requires that the purely constructed nature of social relations finds its complement in the purely pragmatic grounds of the claims to power legitimacy…. a) if any power has been able to impose itself, it is because it has been recognized as legitimate in some quarters; and b) if legitimacy is not based in an a prioristic ground, it is because it is based in some form of successful power. This link between legitimacy and power is precisely what the deliberative model is unable to recognize, since it has to posit the possibility of a type of rational argumentation where power has been eliminated and where legitimacy is grounded on pure rationality” (753).

Therefore, “the main question of democratic politics is not how to eliminate power but how to constitute forms of power that are compatible with democratic values” (ibid). Power is always present, so to “acknowledge the existence of relations of power and the need to transform them, while renouncing the illusion that we could free ourselves completely from power, this is what is specific to the project of ‘radical and plural democracy’ that we are advocating” (ibid).

Mouffe moves on to explain what a pluralist democracy would look like. She uses adversarial, even military terminology, and focuses on a democratic “adversary” who is “an enemy with whom we have in common a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of democracy. But our disagreement concerning their meaning and implementation is not one that could be resolved through deliberation and rational discussion, hence the antagonistic element in the relation” (755). If we ever come to accept the position of our opponents, then it’s the result of “conversion” (in the Kuhnian sense) rather than purely rational persuasion. Mouffe concludes, “Compromises are possible; they are part of the process of politics. But they should be seen as temporary respites in an ongoing confrontation” (ibid).

Mouffe emphasizes a conflictual model of society and politics, but one where we work with power, rather than pretend it can be ignored “under the veil of rationality or morality” (757). In keeping with other post-modernists like Foucault, power is constitutive of existence and therefore not inherently negative. As such, “… the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions nor to relegate them to the private sphere in order to render rational consensus possible, but to mobilise those passions towards the promotion of democratic designs. Far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence” (756).

She concludes with an insistence on flux rather than stasis:

“When we accept that every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power and that always entails some form of exclusion, we can begin to envisage the nature of a democratic public sphere in a different way (ibid).


I have a few concerns with Mouffe’s article. The first is with her vague use of “ethico-political principles” (755 and 756). She clearly finds these of secondary importance, but it’s not clear from this article what she actually means by them. She does concede some importance to them when she says,

“To be sure, pluralist democracy demands a certain amount of consensus, but such a consensus concerns only some ethico-political principles. Since those ethico-political principles can only exist, however, through many different and conflicting interpretations, such a consensus is bound to be a “conflictual consensus” (756)

Nevertheless, she doesn’t go into any further detail about their definitions. One gets the sense that there is a reflexive distaste for such a topic, and that’s all were going to hear about it. This vagueness is mirrored by the lack of precision about how we ought to organize power and our passions “towards the promotion of democratic designs” (ibid). What kind of principles can we put forth, on behalf of a radical democracy, which go beyond might makes right? Like Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Mouffe seems unwilling to engage in normative issues or examples that may lead her to universalist principles… or at least proposals that sound like universalism. It reminds me of Peter Dews’ epithet that, “For the post-structuralists, the universality implicit in the concept of truth appears as a threat” (Dews 222). And perhaps for Mouffe the best way to deal with a threat is to just avoid it.

In a related manner, Mouffe tends to over-simplify Habermas’ position. For Mouffe, the ideal speech situation is but a few steps to an “authoritarian order” (ibid). There is no mention that post-structuralists like Lyotard, Lacan and Foucault have investigated the communicative logic that’s inherent in intersubjective dialogue. For example, Foucault has argued that,

“In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation…. [For] the polemicist, on the other hand… the game does not consist of recognizing this person as a subject having any right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue” (Foucault 381-382).

In other words, what is sought by deliberative democratic theorists, and some radical pluralists, too, is the procedural logic within communication itself. It may lead to procedures which are mired in particularist assumptions, but Mouffe has not (in this article) clearly explained what those assumptions are, and why they should be viewed sceptically. All she has argued is that all assumptions about rational procedure come from some perspective, so that’s enough to discredit any attempt.

Perhaps, as Dews explains in defence of Habermas, “it is not the quest for truth, but rather the violation of these [intersubjective] rights that will tend to take the form of coercion and intimidation”, and be the basis from which we resist domination (Dews 220; emphasis added). If so, then perhaps there is room for stable, meta-ethical principles of rational and moral conduct within a plurality of discourses. Otherwise, Mouffe’s conception of truth – where all paths to truth lead to domination – is as monistic as that which she claims comes from Habermas and his followers.


Referenced Articles:

Dews, Peter. Logics of Disintegration, (New York: Verso, 1987).

Foucault, Michel. “Polemics, Politics and Problemizations,” in The Foucault Reader, Rabinow, Paul, ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1984).

Habermas, Jurgen. “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, Calhoun, Craig, ed. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991).

Habermas, Jurgen. “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason. Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism,” The Journal of Philosophy (March 1995), XXCII:3.

Posted by Colin Welch at 8:32 PM
Edited on: Thursday, July 16, 2009 8:50 PM
Categories: In a Philosophical Mood, Language


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