Disagreement and Agonism

by Erik S

Mårran och Mumin

What interests me in this conceptual cluster is the historical implication of the political order of consensus. Jacques Rancière suggests that the collapse of the Soviet system was “an internal weakening of the very democracy that was assumed to have triumphed” and that it, opposed to what we would think, “reduced democratic life to the management of local consequences of global economic necessity.”[1] Instead of a reappraisal of the political dimensions of Western democracy the logics of the liberal market order became the dominant model of democracy. This political-economic structure or what Rancière calls “the consensual order” was favored on both left and right and turned “political forms into instruments of economic interests and necessities.”[2]

Chantal Mouffe also recognizes a weakening of democracy in recent years and similarly argues that this is due to the dominance of liberalism, in which political questions are depoliticized to mere “technical issues” to be settled by experts. She defines the dominant tendency of liberal thought as rationalist and individualist that is “unable to grasp adequately the pluralistic nature of the social world.”[3] Mouffe argues that in the political world of liberalism antagonism is negated, as the conflicts posed by social pluralism cannot be dealt with through the universal consensus of reason.

The observations of what the consensus of economic necessity is doing to marginalized alternative ideologies or social movements in opposition to this leading identification of democracy is not new. In the world before the fall of the iron curtain, both left and right – i.e. the Soviet five-year plan and the Western capitalist economies – practiced the ideology of equilibrium although in very different localized (nationalized) versions. Neither could we assert that the depolitization of politics through rationalist decision-making came with the neo-liberal politics of the 1990s but was observed already by Max Weber in the beginning of the 20th century. However, what is clear with the reasoning of both Mouffe and Rancière, although they never say this explicitly, is that the mainstreaming of ideology in parliamentary politics is disarming any opposition to the consensual order – especially that on economic policy – through the apolitical system of public administration.

In the light of such concern with the future of parliamentary politics, rather than the Mouffe’s concern with artistic practice, I think that both Rancière’s and Mouffe’s dismissal of, for instance, Hannah Arendt’s agonistic public space is rather problematic. The rejection rests, I believe, foremost in their total refusal of any a political structure based on coming to an agreement, and secondly, in the scope of concern. We could see Arendt’s critique of the bureaucratic systems of political governing revealing “the banality of evil” in another historical context than Rancière and Mouffe, but nevertheless criticizing a consensual order in which plurality of thought, opinion, and action is undermined.

The possibility to reach into the center of politics with marginalized issues is, according to Rancière, impossible in a consensus democracy as consensus means “erasing the contestatory, conflictual nature of the very givens of common life.”[4] Yet he believes that that it is “possible and necessary to oppose a thought of political precariousness” (and consensual stability) as “[p]olitics is a local, precarious, contingent activity – an activity which is always on the point of disappearing, and thus perhaps also on the point of reappearing.”[5] I do agree.


[1] Jacques Rancière, “Introducing Disagreement”, in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2004, p. 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Chantal Mouffe “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces”, in Art and Research, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 2007, p. 2.

[4] Rancière 2004, p. 7.

[5] Ibid. p. 8.