‘Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically’ reviewed by James Hodgson

Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically

Verso, London and New York, 2013. 149pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781781681039

Reviewed by James Hodgson

About the reviewer

James Hodgson is a PhD candidate at the University of York. …


For three decades now, Chantal Mouffe has been engaged in a sustained critique of Western political economy and the terms of mainstream political theory, as well as advancing her own radical approach to democratic politics, which she (and others) have come to identify as democratic agonism. Her first published book (with Ernesto Laclau), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), had, in her words, two main objectives. The first was political: “to reformulate the socialist project so as to provide an answer to the crisis in left-wing thought, both in its communist and in its social democratic versions” (129). This crisis, according to Mouffe and Laclau, was partly due to the advent of social struggles since the 1960s which neither Marxist nor social democratic thinkers were able to account for, as they were neither class-based nor directly related to forms of economic exploitation. (In other words, the rise of movements which can be grouped under the umbrella term ‘the politics of identity’, such as feminist, multicultural, and environmentalist groups.) This leads to the second (theoretical) objective: to develop a post-Marxist theory of the political which was not based on class or economic exploitation. The two conceptual pillars of this theory are ‘antagonism’ and ‘hegemony’. For Mouffe, the possibility of antagonism is a constant and ineradicable feature of human social life, which is characterised by conflicts admitting of no rational, final resolution. Every social order is thus hegemonic in nature; that is, a “contingent articulation of power relations that lacks an ultimate rational ground” (131). Because it is contingent, there are always conceivable alternatives to the status quo, even if the possibility of these alternatives is frequently foreclosed by existing social orders.

It is this foreclosure which Mouffe seeks to forestall with her attempt to rehabilitate political antagonism as democratic agonism: that is, a theory of democratic politics in which contestation is never off-limits, and in which political opponents see each other as “friendly enemies” to be defeated temporarily, rather than mortal adversaries to be eliminated permanently. She writes, “Adversaries fight against each other because they want their interpretation of the [democratic] principles to become hegemonic, but they do not put into question the legitimacy of their opponent’s right to fight for the victory of their position” (7). According to Mouffe, the open-ended struggle between adversaries is “the very condition of a vibrant democracy” (ibid). This conception of agonism was developed in her following works – The Return of the Political (1993), The Democratic Paradox (2000), and On the Political (2005) – along with an accompanying critique of much liberal political philosophy written in the Rawlsian and Habermasian traditions. Agonistics continues and develops themes from these previous works, and will hold few surprises for Mouffe’s longstanding readers. Although the recent book takes Mouffe’s approach to democratic politics in several new directions (a chapter detailing an agonistic approach to public art and architecture, for example) and does more to flesh out her theory in relation to fellow travellers under the agonist banner, such as Bonnie Honig, than any of her previous works, the centrepiece of the book is her development of the theory in relation to the realm of international politics – specifically the European Union – a theme which was treated briefly in On the Political.

The current structure of international politics is constituted, Mouffe asserts (and few would disagree), by the hegemonic order imposed by the United States. This form of global hegemony imposes Western models of liberal democracy and neo-liberal capitalism upon societies which have no necessary or historical affinity with these models of political and economic organisation. According to Mouffe, this global form of ideological hegemony (or ‘unipolarity’) makes occurrences of violent antagonism more likely, because, as in the national context, it forecloses the possibility of alternative forms of social organisation, labelling them illegitimate or simply impossible, and pushes every society along one single, Western path of development. Despite being no fan of global capitalism, Mouffe has little time for theorists of global justice, and does not share their enthusiasm or hope for a cosmopolitan world order which could compel economic redistribution on a global scale. As with theories of deliberative democracy deployed in the context of individual states, such cosmopolitan theorists, Mouffe argues, offer an overly rationalised account of global politics, one which is orientated towards a moral consensus and thus ignores the significance of identity and difference. In doing so, cosmopolitan theorists evade the dimension of human life which Mouffe classes as distinctly ‘political’, and so arrive at the same result as prevailing forms of neo-liberal hegemony, making the outbreak of political antagonism all the more likely.

 Against these two possible forms of global hegemony – one actual, one hypothetical – Mouffe proposes a third approach: a “pluralisation of hegemonies” constituted by a multi-polar, agonistic world order (22). That is, a world political order constituted by “a plurality of regional poles, organised according to different economic and political models and without a central authority” (ibid). Mouffe suggests that the European Union, suitably reformed along agonistic lines, could be one such regional pole. While Mouffe views the European project (understood here chiefly as the unity of French and German national interests in order to prevent another conflict) as a worthy ambition, she takes issue with the current policies and structure of the EU on grounds similar to those of her critique of global neo-liberal hegemony. An EU reconceptualised as a demoi-cracy (that is, as a government of peoples) could, she suggests, not only provide a necessary venue for agonistic struggle which diminishes the possibility of renewed antagonism, but also provide the conditions for saving the particular affective attachments of the nation-state in an increasingly globalised world.

Agonistics is a work which contains much of interest. Mouffe develops her existing approach and takes it in heretofore unexplored directions, and this is certainly welcome. She makes it clear that she is not merely applying the agonistic model previously developed in the context of national democratic politics to the international domain. Rather, she is attempting to tease out the commonalities between these two domains and the similar failures of different groups of theorists in coming to grips with a complex, multifaceted reality. In this regard, her critique of liberal political philosophy remains as insightful as ever. Moreover, her attempt to fill the void in the study of modern international politics situated between, on the one hand, narrowly descriptive or “realist” IR theories which all too often simply indulge existing power relations and, on the other, the high moralism of much current literature on global justice which tends to evade the challenges of power and identity is a welcome tonic to this overly prescriptive dualism.

The book is not without its faults, however. Given the nature of Agonistics as a continuation of Mouffe’s approach, the shortcomings of this work are related to those which apply to Mouffe’s theory as a whole. The most obvious is the shifting role which consensus plays. If Schumpeterian democracy can be described as a marketplace, and deliberative democracy described as a forum (see Elster 1997), then Mouffe’s agonism can perhaps be described as a gladiatorial arena in which political struggles are won and lost. And arenas, of course, are not chaotic battlefields or free-for-alls; they operate under strict rules which the participants agree to prior to entering. Agonism thus turns on conflictual consensus, where participants agree to treat each other as ‘friendly-enemies’ rather than as enemy combatants, on the promise that the democratic struggle can be repeated, no matter which side wins or loses. Mouffe’s account of democratic politics thus operates on set rules no less than Rawls’ or Habermas’s does.

We do not have to go very far here to see potential problems, or at least unanswered puzzles, with a notion of conflict that turns on a prior consensus. The first is that Mouffe’s agonism is based on a critique of consensus-orientated democratic politics as stifling those forms of identity and difference which, if left unarticulated, will erupt into open antagonism. That is all very well, and leaves Mouffe open to responding that her vision of consensus politics is superior to liberal variants because it can act as a release valve for various subterranean political conflicts in a way which the latter cannot. But Mouffe must then say how her vision succeeds in doing this where others fail in practical terms, and she rarely comes close to doing so. Indeed, in terms of democratic practice, her theory begins to seem much closer to the liberal accounts of political competition from which she wishes to distance herself. Moreover, the ironic upshot of this emphasis on consensus is that agonism may be a theory uniquely suited to stable Western societies, or at least those societies where democratic competition already obtains. In many non-Western nations, after all, the promise of repeated democratic struggle is far from a given, with the winners frequently rewriting the rules of the competition to ensure their continued dominance. A similar issue appears when the agonistic approach is extended to the multi-polar global order which Mouffe envisions. In this case, the whole world must agree to conduct itself in accordance with Mouffe’s agonistic rules, including those “regional poles” which are not organised democratically. At this point, it would not be uncharitable to describe this as a fairly utopian exercise.

The second shortcoming we might mention is that while Mouffe is more attentive than most political theorists to developments in empirical political reality, this sensitivity does not always translate into her work in a way which is free from bias or selective interpretation. For example, her claim that “It cannot be denied that, far from creating a more peaceful world, the unipolar order resulting from the demise of the Soviet union has in fact led to the emergence of new antagonisms” (28). For a generation raised on the prospect of nuclear annihilation and witnessing the various proxy wars fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, this statement is far from incontestable. Similar reservations apply to Mouffe’s remarks on the European Union; for example: “There is no doubt that . . . the European project has, so far, been successful, but we should be aware that it could always unravel” (48). Again, this is far from incontestable, and indeed requires explanation in a decade when the European Union has suffered various calamities which it has proven ill-equipped to navigate, and has been met with increased scepticism and antipathy from its constituent populations. Mouffe tends to paper over these eminently controversial claims by prefacing them with phrases like “It cannot be denied . . .” and “There is no doubt . . .” This is not sufficient in areas where there are doubts and denials aplenty. Mouffe is therefore guilty of the charge sometimes levelled against political realists in general: that they engage in political punditry rather than credible empirical analysis (see Scheuerman, 2013: 811).

Much of this review has been taken up with excavating the theoretical background to Mouffe’s approach. This is far from accidental. Whilst Agonistics advances several new lines of research for Mouffe, the approach she takes is an entirely familiar one. And while it stands as perhaps the most comprehensive treatment Mouffe has yet provided of her theory, those hoping for an accessible introduction to her thought will be left disappointed. Indeed, in many respects the book can be seen as a direct sequel to her previous book, On the Political. Moreover, the tone of the Mouffe’s prose is polemical rather than analytical, and if a knowledge of her previous work is not necessary to understand the arguments which she advances here, it is nevertheless helpful. One could be forgiven, therefore, for viewing Agonistics as simply “more of the same” from Mouffe. However, it is perhaps better understood as Mouffe’s attempt to update her radical democratic theory – which still remains powerful and underappreciated – for a new decade; one for which it is particularly, and perhaps sadly, resonant.

29 October 2015


  • Elster, J. 1997 The Market and the Forum: Three Varieties of Political Theory Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, J. Bohman and W. Rehg (eds.) (Boston: MIT Press), pp. 3-34.
  • Mouffe, C. and Laclau, E. 1985 Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso).
  • Mouffe, C. 1993 The Return of the Political (London: Verso).
  • Mouffe, C. 2000 The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso).
  • Mouffe, C. 2005 On the Political (New York: Routledge).
  • Scheuerman, W. 2013 The Realist Revival in Political Philosophy, or: Why New is Not Always Improved International Politics Vol. 50, No. 6, pp. 798-814.

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