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Agonism is a political theory that 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 with debates about democracy. The tradition is also referred to as agonistic pluralism.
Agonism and other traditions in political thought 
Agonism is opposed to a 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". 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 1970s, 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" 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.
Chantal Mouffe says, "I use the concept of agonistic pluralism to present a new way to think about democracy that is different from the traditional liberal conception of democracy as a negotiation among interests and is also different from the model that 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."
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 important, by mutual admiration.
Bonnie Honig, perhaps[original research?] 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".
Critics of agonistic pluralism 
Critics of agonistic pluralist political theory may not necessarily 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 identified solely with the state, judicial, or formal representative democratic institutions. It may include such discourses as visible traces but does not restrict itself solely 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.
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.
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.
- Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, Chapter 1.
- Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p. 15
- Michel Foucault: "Governmentality" in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Miller (ed) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality: London: Harvester: 1991
- Karl Schroeder Lady of Mazes, Tor, ISBN 0-7653-1219-0