Markus Miessen, Chantal Mouffe, and the Nightmare of Participation

I recently found copies of two books in Miessen’s series of books on participation, collaboration, and democracy. The first presents his thoughts, along with other viewpoints, on the problematic of participation when it is shrouded with goals of consensus and political legitimization.  The follow up, Waking Up From the Nightmare of Participation, provides an anthology of substantive support and critique.   The key take away, for me, was his claim that democracy is an unessential, and perhaps, illegitimate and dangerous goal. Democracy, for Miessen, is not always the best approach. Short of autocracy, decision-making for him is best done in collaboration, not in agreement necessarily, and he strongly supports the critical approach to democracy of Mouffe.

In a chapter of The Nightmare of Participation, he reports a conversation with Mouffe. Here she lays out her argument from On the Political where she presents agonistic democracy as an alternative way to approach  democracy in a post-political society– in juxtaposition to Habermas’s communicative or collaborative and the aggregative models.  “I insist that the dimension of the political is something linked to the dimension of conflict that exists in human societies, the ever-present possibility of antagonism: an antagonism that is ineradicable. This means that a consensus without exclusion—a form of consensus beyond hegemony, beyond sovereignty, will always be unavailable” (107). And so we are left with a dilemma of participation on the dimension of the political: what does this mean for democracy? Can we have a pluralist democracy, or are we left with the only possibility of order stemming from, what Carl Schmitt suggests in his critique of liberalism, an authoritarian model? This is exactly the dilemma Mouffe is trying to combat: “This is why I developed this model that I call an “agonistic model of democracy,” in which I am trying to show that the main task of democratic politics is, to put it in a nutshell, to transform antagonism into agonism” (108). I don’t want to give up on democracy that easily either.

I have difficulty, however, with Mouffe in her proposition of “conflictual consensus”. In this she proposes that there is a basic agreement between adversaries, not enemies, on the basic principles that should exist or do exist, and then they argue and disagree on the interpretation of these principles. “You can never say, “This is the correct interpretation of liberty or equality.” This is how I envisage the agonistic struggle: a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus—consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation” (109, emphasis added). Although this is an improvement on the liberal democracies with shroud conflict with exclusionary consensus, my problem is, in my Nietzschean mode of thinking, that this idea of shared principles is a cop-out. Its not digging far enough. How is a shared principle formed? If disagreement exists over the meaning of the shared principle, then is that really an agreement on the existence of that shared principle to begin with?Doesn’t shared principles mandate some sort of belonging in which there is inevitably a line drawn between exclusion and inclusion? At what scale does agonistic democracy work?  I have trouble with the notion of conflictual consensus in that it creates an idol, a shared principle, to which all of us must agree exists, is possible, is transcendentally appealing. But are we not then moving away from the politics of everyday life, from the very existence that allows us to be present in the fullest form in the moment of conflict? Does this mean that we belong to an institution with normative constraints?

Mouffe takes up this argument in her disagreement with Hardt and Negri’s theses from Empire and Multitude.  Basically, she argues that they do not adequately account for peoples’ passions for collective political identity, of belonging, in their discussion of institutions.

” Theirs[Hardt and Negri] is a very anti-institutional view. They are against all forms of local, regional, or national institutions, which they declare to be fascistic. They think that belonging to specific places is something that should be overcome, and that we should propel some kind of cosmopolitan view and understanding. The multitude should not have any form of belonging. I think this is completely inadequate theoretically because they do not acknowledge—and in this sense, I think they do share something with most liberals—the importance of what I call “passions” for political collective identities. They do not realize the importance of the passions, what Freud calls the “libidinal investment” [an attachment of strong, intense emotional energies to an issue, person, or concept], which are mobilized in the creation of local, regional, or national forms of identities … My main disagreement with Hardt and Negri is in the possibility of an “absolute democracy,” a democracy beyond any form of institution. It is even difficult for me to imagine what this could be. There is a messianic tone in their view. They think it is possible to reach a perfect democracy in which there will no longer be any relation of power—no more conflict, no more antagonism. It goes completely against the point that I want to defend, and is the basis of most of my work, which is precisely the fact that antagonism is ineradicable. It can be tamed, which is what agonism tried to do, but we will never arrive at the point where it has definitely been overcome.(108-109).

I find this an interesting flip-flop. Mouffe demands an existence of shared principles, of which are not contested, but their meanings are.  Yet, she denies the existence of the ideal of democracy. Or is it the achievement of that ideal which she thinks is impossible? If so, her theory gains tremendous strength. Then, she has alluded to democracy as something that it is always “democracy to come” (like Derrida), something which we are always fighting for, yet always in disagreement over what that end is. Are we are stuck with goals of liberty, equality, justice, all of which are ideals, which are the foundations of her democracy, on which people debate in agonistic fashion, for an ideal that doesn’t exist? Criticizing Hardt and Negri she explains:   “The moment we say democracy has been realized, we pretend to be in a situation in which we can say: What exists at the moment is a perfect democracy. Such a democracy would have ceased to be pluralistic because there would no longer be any possibility for discussion or conflict….I see their entire theory as some reformulation—even if it is in a different vocabulary, one influenced by Deleuze and Guattari—of the Marxism of the Second International. It is the same type of determinism in which we basically don’t have to do anything, just wait for the moment in which the contradiction of Empire will bring about the reign of the multitude. All the crucial and fundamental questions for politics are automatically evacuated. (112)

Post-political participation is dangerous and perhaps violent. That is the essence of Miessen’s work.  “There is now a general consensus that there is no alternative, which I think is extremely dangerous” (117). Yet Mouffe insists, in a refreshing manner, that “[a]nother world is possible. And the present neoliberal hegemony has tried to convince us that things can only be as they are. Fortunately, this is not the truth. All forms of what we call the “productive engagement to disturb the consensus” are crucial in order to bring to the fore the things that consensus has tried to push aside. In the creation of what I call an agonistic public space, there are many different voices and people that all play a role. For instance, I think this is definitely an area where artists, architects, or people who are engaged in the entire field of culture at large, play an incredibly important role, because they provide different forms of subjectivities from the ones that exist at the moment” (119). And this is the “nightmare of consensus” that we are fighting to overcome.

Mouffe’s take on the political and pluralism are very important in this context. She disagrees with the notion of the political as Hannah Arendt and thinkers in her tradition have followed, an associative view, which basically assumes that politics is actors acting in concert. Mouffe identifies with a dissociative view of the political which entails conflict and antagonism. This translates again, from a discussion of participation, into the differing views of pluralism. The liberal view, again which Mouffe associates with Arendt, deals with multiplicity and recognition of plurality, whereas, the view of pluralism Mouffe associates with is “an idea that pluralism necessarily implies antagonism, because all these different and multiple views cannot be reconciled. Some of them require the negation of other views. So you can never imagine all these views put together, as composing a harmonious ensemble. Accepting the fact and existence of pluralism implies, therefore, accepting the fact of antagonism, of conflict. Conflict that is ineradicable, that cannot be reconciled. In fact, this is exactly what I understand as antagonism” (125).  So her project, then, is to reconcile the irreconcilable? (As indicated in her goal to move from antagonism to agonism).

What does all of this mean for participation more directly? I’ll reflect on this more soon.

Here he gives a talk about his work:


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