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Agonism (from Greek ἀγών agon, "struggle") is a political theory that emphasizes 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 people 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, some 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 importantly, by mutual admiration...— Political theorist Samuel A. Chambers
Bonnie Honig, an advocate of agonism, writes: "to affirm the perpetuity of the contest is not to celebrate a world without points of stabilisation; it is to affirm the reality of perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting, and to identify the affirmative dimension of contestation". In her book Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Cornell, 1993, awarded the 1994 Foundations of Political Thought Book Prize for best first book in political theory), she develops this notion through critiques of consensual conceptions of democracy. Arguing that every political settlement engenders remainders to which it cannot fully do justice, she draws on Nietzsche and Arendt, among others, to bring out the emancipatory potential of political contestation and of the disruption of settled practices. Recognizing, on the other hand, that politics involves the imposition of order and stability, she argues that politics can neither be reduced to consensus, nor to pure contestation, but that these are both essential aspects of politics.
William E. Connolly is one of the founders of this school of thought in political theory. He promotes the possibility of an "agonistic democracy", where he finds positive ways to engage certain aspects of political conflict. Connolly proposes a positive ethos of engagement, which could be used to debate political differences. Agonism is based on contestation, but in a political space where the discourse is one of respect, rather than violence. Unlike toleration, agonistic respect actively engages adversaries in political contests over meaning and power. Unlike antagonism, it shows respect by admitting the ultimately contestability of even one’s own deepest held commitments. Agonism does not name a model of democracy; it is a practice of democratic engagement that destabilizes appeals to authoritative identities and fixed universal principles. Connolly's critical challenges to John Rawls's theory of justice and Jürgen Habermas's theory on deliberative democracy have spawned a host of new literature in this area. His work Identity\Difference (1991) contains an exhaustive look at positive possibilities via democratic contestation.
The work of Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault have also invoked conceptions of agonism and the agon in a more critical sense beyond that of political counter-hegemony. Although this usage of Agonism has been largely ignored it has been explored at some length by Claudio Colaguori in Agon Culture: Competition, Conflict and the Problem of Domination. For Colaguori, "the agon is literally the arena of competition, the scene of contest, and the locus of adversarial conflict. The philosophy of agonism affirms the idea that transcendence, truth, and growth are generated from the outcome of the contest...the concept of agonism is often understood in an affirmative sense as the generative principle of economy, society and even natural ecology and personal growth... The ambivalent character of agonism is that it is often seen as a mode of transcendence, while its instrumental relation to the mode of destruction is rarely acknowledged". Agonism forms part of the instituted social order where society "produces and reproduces itself precisely from the interconnection of the antagonistic interests of its members" (Adorno, 1974).
For Adorno, agonism is also about the "theodicy of conflict" where opponents "want to annihilate one another... to enter the agon, each the mortal enemy of each" (Minima Moralia). Adorno also sees agonism as the underlying principle in Hegel's dialectic of history where "dialectics (growth through conflict) is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction" (Negative Dialectics). Colaguori reconstructs the concept of the agon to invoke this critical, destructive aspect as a way of extending Adorno's critique of modern domination and identify how the normalization and naturalization of conflict is used as an ideology to justify various forms of domination and subjugation. The agonistic ideology that has been appropriated by popular culture for example makes use of agonistic themes to celebrate competition as the wellspring of life in such a way as to normalize "a military definition of reality" (C. W. Mills).
The critical conception of agonism developed by Adorno and Foucault emphasizes how aspects of competition can be utilized to reinforce the project of domination that is evident in the geopolitics of modernity. Colaguori suggests that a critical conception of agonism can be applied to the study of "numerous forms of social conflict in gender, class and race relations where the competitive mode of interaction prevails in the formation of social hierarchies based on competition as a form of exclusion". Colaguori further states that, "after 100 years of technological progress, human societies are trapped in a perpetual dynamic of conflict and crisis, with modernization at a standstill. While this dialectic of development and destruction has been analysed from political and economic perspectives, Agon Culture offers an analysis of the human condition through an examination of the way in which the cultural ideology of competition operates as a mode of rationality that underpins the order of domination."
Agonism in fiction
The science fiction novel Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder depicts a post-human future where "agonistics" is the ruling principle of the solar system. The story explains agonistics as "You can compete, and you can win, but you can never win once-and-for-all". A character gives two examples of agonism: a presidency with term limits, and laws aimed at preventing corporate monopolies.
- Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, Chapter 1.
- Hearts, Minds and Radical Democracy: Interview with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe by Dave Castle. https://www.redpepper.org.uk/hearts-minds-and-radical-democracy/
- Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, p. 15
- "C Colaguori" Agon Culture: Competition, Conflict and the Problem of Domination. de Sitter Publications, Whitby, Ontario, ISBN 978-1-897160-63-3
- Theodor Adorno, 1974, "Minima Moralia". London: Verso Editions
- Karl Schroeder Lady of Mazes, Tor, ISBN 0-7653-1219-0