Chantal Mouffe: some pointers for work on conflict resolution

Discussion notes by Mike Makin-Waite

Chantal Mouffe is, arguably, one of the most influential political philosophers working in Britain and Europe today. She was born in Belgium in 1943, studied at the universities of Louvain, Paris and Essex, and is currently a professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, where she directs the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Her recent work has focussed on three related areas: crises and challenges facing democratic systems, populism, and the nature of political conflicts and disputes. Mouffe’s thinking in these areas builds on work she published in collaboration with her late partner, Ernesto Laclau (1935 – 2014). Their co-authored book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy proved to be a major intervention in debates about theory and direction on the political left.1 (numbers refer to endnotes, below).

She and Laclau both developed themes from this 1985 publication in their subsequent work, continuing to critique essentialist and dogmatic forms of Marxism; promoting ‘radical democracy’; suggesting how alliances could be built between people supporting varied progressive causes through developing ‘chains of equivalence’; and carrying out ground-breaking work on the nature of populism and the ways that political identities are formed.

Mouffe’s distinctive theories has been informed by creative and critical engagement with some of the work of Carl Schmitt (1888 – 1985), a German academic, critic of parliamentary systems and legal practitioner who was an active and prominent Nazi from 1933 to 1945.

Her assessment of Schmitt led to Mouffe focussing on the nature of ‘the political’.This involved developing a distinction between ‘antagonistic’ and ‘agonistic’ conflicts in political and social life. Against those who envisage the possibility of an entirely ‘transparent and reconciled’ society in which all substantial conflicts have been superseded, including adherents of ‘the myth of communism’, she argues that contradictions and disputes are and always will be inevitable in social life. Mouffe promotes the need for these to take ‘agonistic’ forms within democratic political systems.

Mouffe relates her theoretical work to particular political perspectives and positions, believing that forms of what she calls ‘left populism’ are and would be positive projects today. She has directly engaged with and influenced some new political leaders on the left, including key figures in Podemos in Spain and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, encouraging them to frame their activity as democratic struggle against unrepresentative elites, and she identifies positively with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party in Britain.2

It is worth making clear at this point that Mouffe does not share the view, often promoted in the mainstream press and by established politicians, that populism is necessarily dangerous for democracy. In fact, far from being automatically opposed to democracy, populist discourses and movements can have an important role in invigorating liberal democracies that have become stale and closed systems.

These notes start from a view that Mouffe’s work has wider significance than is defined by her particular political interventions, consistent though these are with her thinking. Whether or not you sympathise or identify with her current party allegiances, her theories are of interest and use to anyone who seeks to understand the nature and forms of social and political conflict today – and to respond to these in positive ways.

The notes have three main aims: to survey some of Mouffe’s theoretical points, whilst accepting that they are ‘resistant to summary’ 3; to highlight some ways in which her insights and arguments may be of use to people working in the field of ‘conflict resolution’ (and to illustrate how observations drawn from conflict resolution practice can generate interrogations of her work); and to stimulate response and discussion. Questions, disagreements, suggestions etc should be sent to

Concepts and distinctions

Mouffe’s theoretical arguments involve considered distinctions between concepts which are closely related. One such distinction is between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.

She summarises what is popularly called ‘politics’ as ‘the ensemble of practices and institutions whose aim is to organise human co-existence’.4 She argues that the context for all politics is ‘the political’, a field which underpins any possible politics. For Mouffe, it is in the nature of the ‘political’ to include ‘the ever-present possibility of antagonism’.5 ‘The political’ always includes ineradicable differences that cannot be annexed or subsumed or reconciled into any polity, no matter how plural or inclusive it is. All politics takes place within ‘the political’, which informs and shapes ‘a terrain of conflictuality’.6

In another formulation of the same point, Mouffe says that ‘the political’ refers to the ‘dimension of antagonism which can take many forms and can emerge in diverse social relations. It is a dimension that can never be eradicated. “Politics”, on the other hand, refers to the ensemble of practices and discourses and institutions that seeks to establish a certain order and to organise human coexistence in conditions which are always potentially conflicting, since they are affected by the dimension of “the political”.7

Three key concepts – ‘antagonism’, ‘radical negativity’ and ‘hegemony’ – are integral to Mouffe’s conception of ‘the political’. This always has a ‘dimension of radical negativity that manifests itself in the ever-present possibility of antagonism. This dimension … impedes the full totalisation of society and forecloses the possibility of a society beyond division and power. This in turn requires coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and the undecidability that pervades every [social] order. In our vocabulary, this means recognising the “hegemonic” nature of every kind of social order and envisaging society as the product of a series of practices whose aim is to establish order in a context of contingency’.8

Hegemony is a concept which has been used in various ways by a wide range of political theorists and leaders.9 It is often used to highlight and describe the non-coercive means (including various forms of influence, cultural promotion and the achievement of consent) by which political and social leadership can be promoted, become established and remain effective. Mouffe sees hegemony as a necessarily limited and reversible achievement. It is made up of ‘practices of articulation through which a given order is created and the meaning of social institutions is fixed … every order is the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. Things could always be otherwise, and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities’.10

On the formation of political identities / the drawing of frontiers

Politics, then, takes place on the terrain of the political. It involves disputes, disagreements and conflicts between different political actors. These are groups of people who form and organise in different ways and to different extents around ‘political identities’, normally through taking part in social movements, campaigns and / or through participating in and / or supporting more formal organisations with leaders, such as political parties and governmental administrations.

Mouffe makes a number of points about the nature of political identities which help illustrate the view that ‘the political’ is a necessarily conflicted terrain. One of her points is that every political identity is ‘relational’. Each and every political identity exists in relation to another identity which it is not (or, to other identities which it distinguishes itself from).She notices, therefore, that ‘the very condition of possibility of the formation of political identities is at the same time the condition of impossibility of a society from which antagonism can be eliminated’.11 This is one particular instance of a more general point about identity formation, for ‘affirmation of a difference is a precondition for the existence of any identity – i.e. the perception of something “other” which constitutes its “exterior”’.

This means that ‘we’ / ‘they’ distinctions create the ‘moment of the political’. Mouffe states that ‘every identity is constructed through the assertion of a difference, the determination of an “other” that serves as its “exterior”, and the consequent establishment of a frontier between interior and exterior. With respect to collective identities, this means that the creation of a “we” can only exist through the formation of a “they”. Indeed, every form of collective identity entails drawing a frontier between those who belong to the “we” and those who are outside it’.12

These views are rooted in earlier work which Mouffe carried out with Laclau, in which they recognised the impossibility of any social agent fully achieving their interests. The actual existence of other, rival, social agents, blocks the full realisation of any one social agents’ identity. The resulting failure, or rather the recognition that failure is inevitable, leads to social agents constructing an ‘enemy’ who can be held responsible for that failure. This understanding is different to ‘traditional conceptions of social conflict in which antagonisms are understood as the clash of social agents with fully constituted identities and interests’.13 These ‘blockages of identity’ experienced by agents-in-development generate ‘discourses’ – the languages of politics – in which identities and their concomitant ‘obstructions’ are ‘constructed in antagonistic terms’.

Reflecting on and developing such insights, Mouffe makes some observations about the nature of disagreement between political actors which are of direct interest to those whose work it is to respond to and intervene in conflict situations. Mouffe emphasises that the ‘we’ / ‘they’ relations which she recognises as necessary and inevitable in social life are not necessarily antagonistic. After all, many ‘us’ / ‘them’ relations are merely the recognition of difference. But there is always the possibility that any ‘us’ / ‘them’ relation might become an antagonistic relation of ‘friend’ / ‘enemy’. Mouffe says that this shift happens when the others, up to now considered as simply different, start to be perceived as putting into question our identity and threatening our access to resources – or even our very existence.

These formulations are similar to distinctions which have been made by some conflict resolution practitioners between four related but separate dynamics which, in English, are given names which begin with ‘di-‘. ‘Diversity’, to one degree or another, and in different forms, is a characteristic of all communities: ‘we are / we live in a diverse community’; ‘differences’ exist within those communities (along with commonalities) – ‘we are different to you in this / these ways, you are different to us in this / these ways’; ‘divisions’ exist where a difference or a number of differences are linked to and inform counterposing positions, such as in relation to resource allocation or cultural and social practices; and these divisions can lead to ‘disputes’.

An important point about the formation of political identities, as conceived by Mouffe, is that they are formed through practices and the exercise of choice. Political identities do not simply reflect or express a pre-existing ‘fundamental’ identity, which ‘essentially’ or necessarily exists independently of and prior to its being expressed. The very creation of a political identity results from and consists in the development and combination of ‘a diversity of discourses, among which there is no necessary relation … the “identity” of such a multiple and contradictory subject is always contingent, precarious, temporarily fixed at the intersection of those discourses and dependent on specific forms of identification’.14

This ‘anti-essentialist’ approach has been central to Mouffe’s work for over thirty years, back to the time she was co-authoring Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. One argument in that book, which critiqued rigid and traditionalist forms of socialism and Marxism, was that there is not such a thing as ‘the working class’ which already exists and which a communist party or labour party can simply presume to speak on behalf of. Identities involving class identification are, instead, developed through a range of processes, including the efforts of would-be political representatives to ‘articulate’ and ‘represent’ particular groups of people and their social interests. Given that those people are complex and real, with multiple aspects to their lives, they were never identical to the abstract and theoretical conception which some socialists and communists had of what the working class ‘is’ or ‘should be’: the result was that there was a developing crisis for left-wing politics. Across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, and on both sides of the ‘iron curtain’, parties which presumed to ‘speak’ for ‘the working class’ found that actual working people had the bad manners not to accept them as their representatives. Established forms of social-democracy, labourism and communism were losing support and heading for catastrophic defeats and setbacks. Left-wingers urgently needed to recognise that ‘identities are never already given, but always produced through discursive construction; this process of construction is a process of representation’.15 In a related formulation, Mouffe insists that ‘it is impossible to speak of the social agent as if we were dealing with a unified, homogenous entity’.16

For Mouffe, the boundaries and frontiers involved in forming and defining any particular political identity do not stem from an essence which is ‘already there’. They are not the necessary expression of a ‘true’, already-existing identity which simply needs to be noticed and spoken for. There is no essential identity, but only forms and processes of identification. This allows the possibility of people changing their identifications and political identities over a period of time – which can be a long process, or a short moment.

Let’s have some heated debates

Mouffe is comfortable with the fact that there is contestation and dispute in political life and over social issues. This is healthy, proper and positive: ‘the confrontation between different political projects is crucial’ for democracy.17
By contrast, a polity which states that there is consensus on the policies of the government, and which presents any fundamental alternative set of policies as ‘unthinkable’, is storing up problems. This is because ‘a well-functioning democracy calls for a confrontation of democratic political positions. If this is missing, there is always the danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values or essentialist forms of identifications. Too much emphasis on consensus, together with aversion towards confrontations, leads to apathy and to a disaffection with political participation’.18 In a related formulation, Mouffe argues that ‘when the agonistic dynamics of pluralism are hindered because of a lack of democratic forms of identification, then passions cannot be given a democratic outlet’.19

In Mouffe’s view, most of the governments in power in Britain and other European countries between the 1980s and the first decade of this century promoted stifling and unhealthy forms of consensus, with centre-left and centre-right politicians alike arguing that that there was no alternative to the neo-liberal economic framework and to a particular form of globalisation. Some neo-liberal social democrats presented their politics as a sensible ‘third way’, a managerialist, ‘expert’ approach to addressing social and economic issues which would avoid the failed model of statist socialism and manage the excesses of free-market capitalism. Any opposition to this ‘common sense’ was ‘unthinkable’. This meant that reactions to globalisation and neo-liberalism emerged which took ‘anti-political’ and anti-democratic forms, ranging from anti-globalisation social movements and protests which were influenced by anarchist outlooks, to nativist ethno-populisms.

These forms of ‘blowback’ involved a reaction against a certain arrogance which existed within – and was communicated by – forms of liberal democracy which considered themselves as inevitable and necessary. In fact, as a thoughtful commentator on Mouffe has put it, ‘any form of liberal democracy’, as any other political formation, ‘is just a contingent and hegemonic form of political power. As much as it likes to present itself as rational, consensual and inclusive of any reasonable objection, it is still power, and it still closes itself off against what it cannot accept.20 In Mouffe’s more theoretical formulation of the same point, ‘to deny the existence of such a moment of closure, or to present the frontier as dictated by rationality or morality, is to naturalize what should be perceived as a contingent and temporary hegemonic articulation of “the people” through a particular regime of inclusion-exclusion’.21 Ironically, the danger of the element of blind arrogance which is thus incorporated into some forms of liberal democracy is that it helps create the context for anti-democratic and anti-liberal impulses, because ‘the liberal conception … reduces politics to a competition among elites in a neutral terrain’.22 Leaving no space for the people in political life means that the people react against political life.

Against ‘deliberative democracy’

The implications of Mouffe’s positions can be illustrated by her reactions to the practice of ‘deliberative democracy’. This has been promoted over recent decades as a way of involving people in political decision making.

There will be few who argue against the principle of wider engagement in decision making, and the value of efforts to forge better connections and interplay between the political process and people who are not currently part of formal political life: Mouffe certainly does not argue against this.

But she believes that there are mistaken and misleading assumptions involved in the way deliberative democracy is framed, resulting from its being rooted in and informed by the work of such thinkers as Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls.

These assumptions include a ‘rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based on reason’.23 A starting point in the deliberative discussion process is that the disputed issue which is the subject of deliberation is susceptible to ‘a final reconciliation through reason’.24

This results from one particular way of defining the nature of politics. It is an ‘associative view which says that the political is the domain of liberty, of acting in common, and where you should try to establish consensus – the view dominant in liberal democratic political theory’. By contrast, there is the ‘dissociative view’, held by Mouffe, ‘which says that politics has to do with conflict and antagonism, which is a very specific type of conflict. Antagonism is a type of conflict which does not have a rational solution. So it is not a question of sitting and discussing and discussing. This is why I am critical of deliberative democracy!’ 25

In another formulation of the same critique, Mouffe states that ‘the kind of rational consensus which Habermas’s approach postulates is a conceptual impossibility because it presupposes the availability of a consensus without exclusion, which is precisely what the hegemonic approach reveals to be impossible’.26 And, again: ‘Rationalism and the belief in the availability of a final reconciliation through reason impede one from acknowledging the ever-present possibility of antagonism’.27

Mouffe’s characterises the assumptions behind ‘deliberative democracy’ as constituting a ‘liberal theory [which] recognises that we live in a world where a multiplicity of perspectives and values coexist and, for reasons it believes to be empirical, accepts that it is impossible for each of us to adopt them all. But it imagines that these perspectives and values, brought together, constitute a harmonious and non-conflictual ensemble. This type of thought is therefore incapable of accounting for the necessarily conflictual nature of pluralism, which stems from the impossibility of reconciling all points of view’.28

Mouffe’s identification of ‘this type of thought’ as ‘liberalism’ is connected to her analysis of why right-wing and nativist populisms have developed over the last couple of decades. Those political and social actors who believe or sense that their views cannot be reconciled to or incorporated into the all-encompassing ‘rational’ consensus which liberals envisage will be the end result of their deliberative process choose to absent themselves from the process: it is not for them. In this way, for all its declarations about being inclusive, liberalism actually generates exclusions. This is not to accuse liberals of hypocrisy: this effect of their politics is unintended. Nevertheless, the exclusionary logic of liberalism takes place.

In response, those who sense that ‘deliberative’ processes aimed at consensus do not provide an arena for them to promote their politics instead turn to political – or ‘anti-political’ – movements which are radically opposed to the political mainstream. The resulting logics of division are, arguably, increased further when such movements are defined as ‘populist’. In some cases, categorising them in this way is an attempt to stigmatise and disparage them, sometimes expressed through criticism of the clumsiness, crudeness and bluntness of populists who have not been schooled or inducted into the sophisticated cultures of ‘proper’ political process.

The affective dimension /connecting to nationalism

For those liberals who believe that politics should be an entirely rational discussion, one of the most uncomfortable and unsettling aspects of ‘populist’ movements is the way they express ‘affective bonds and passionate commitments’. In contrast, ‘calm’ and ‘calming’ methods such as deliberation seek to displace ‘passions’ into a zone of illegitimacy.

For Mouffe, however, it is not possible to overcome the divisions that result from identity formation simply through communicative rationality and procedural, legalistic methods of legitimation, as advocated by Habermas. These rationalist approaches leave out the role played by the affective dimension – emotions and passion – in the process of identity formation.29

One particular example of an affective bond is nationalism: this has often proved to be a ‘tricky’ and ‘difficult’ issue for liberals and for the political left. But Mouffe states that it is an issue that needs acknowledging and working on by left-wing and progressive people. She suggests that that ‘we need to acknowledge what Freud called a strong libidinal investment in the identification with the nation. I disagree with Habermas’s idea of a post-national identity. We need to see how we can work on national forms of identification and construct them in a way that is really going to be open and pluralistic’.

Mouffe recognises that a progressive articulation of nationalism ‘is easier in some countries than in others. I think that in France, a left patriotism is much easier because of the French Revolution. You can really establish it on the basis of values that are universalistic values. It is much more difficult in Germany and in Austria where I had quite interesting discussions with my friends at the time of Haider’s rise. I would say that I had never seen a country where the left were so anti-patriotic. Austrians are so anti-Austrian – it’s incredible. I used to tell them, “You can’t reduce the whole history of Austria to those years in which some Austrians were so enthusiastic about the Anschluss. There are a lot of other stories, of Red Vienna, the Austro-Marxists” – and Vienna has had a social-democratic government since then – “You can construct a different narrative about the values of your nation!”’.30

How Mouffe uses – and is opposed to – Carl Schmitt

It is worth pausing to note how Mouffe’s thinking developed through her engagement with Carl Schmitt’s work.31 This is in itself an interesting example of ‘learning from your enemy’: Mouffe has a long track record on the political left, and yet recognised the originality and importance of Schmitt, a German intellectual who was a committed Nazi. As James Martin puts it, ‘what Schmitt understood, uniquely in Mouffe’s view, [was] the ever-present prospect of violence which circumscribes all political relations, and he therefore refused to reduce politics to an ethics without antagonism’.32 Mouffe has been criticised by some other left-wingers for taking Schmitt seriously, but remains unapologetic: ‘you don’t decide whether to delve into a thinker’s work on the basis of their moral qualities, but on the basis of their theoretical qualities’.33

The starting point for Mouffe’s engagement with Schmitt is his exploration of the paradoxical elements of and tensions within liberal democracy. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, his perspectives on these matters were promoted by Schmitt’s followers in the circle around the illiberal and anti-parliamentarian monthly journal Die Tat. Mouffe borrows some of her critique of liberal democracy from Schmitt, but then she turns that critique against Schmitt. He wanted not only to critique but to abolish liberal democracy, and saw its paradoxical tensions as fatal: this was a system which was dying, and which deserved to die. Mouffe – in an important contrast – sees liberal democracy’s paradoxes and tensions as productive.

Mouffe states that ‘Schmitt is certainly right in pointing out the existence of a conflict between the liberal “grammar”, which postulates universality and the reference to “humanity”, and the “grammar” of democratic equality, which requires the construction of a people and a frontier between a “we” and a “they”. But I think he is mistaken in presenting that conflict as a contradiction that must inevitably lead a pluralistic liberal democracy to self-destruction’.34


The positive approach to handling political disputes and conflicts, including those which involve ‘passions’ and affective elements, which Mouffe proposes on the basis of the theories indicated so far is ‘agonistics’.35

This is contrasted with antagonism: ‘The agonistic confrontation is different from the antagonistic one, not because it allows for a possible consensus, but because the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate. Her ideas will be fought with vigour but her right to defend them will never be questioned’.36

In related formulations, Mouffe explains that ‘the agonistic encounter is a confrontation where the aim is neither the annihilation nor the assimilation of the other, and where the tensions between the different approaches contribute to enhancing the pluralism that characterizes a multipolar world’.37

On this basis, a central task for democrats ‘is to provide the institutions which will permit conflicts to take an “agonistic” form, where the opponents are not enemies, but adversaries among whom exists a conflictual consensus’.38

The agonistic model is intended as a way of structuring and maintaining democratic and orderly politics, at the same time as recognising ‘the ineradicability of antagonism’ – and avoiding the temptation to deny this ineradicability, or acting as if it could and should be eradicated, as she suggests happens in the ‘liberal’ models of Habermas and Rawls. Mouffe says that ‘my agonistic approach … proposes keeping antagonisms at bay by establishing institutions allowing for conflict to take an agonistic form’.39 And, again, ‘by distinguishing between “antagonism” and “agonism”, it is possible to visualise a form of democracy which does not deny radical negativity’.40

Agonism as an alternative to violence

The value of agonism, in a world of growing antagonisms, is that it could provide ways to manage and work through a wide range of contested and disputed issues in ways which are consistent with democratic principles, and in ways which avoid violent conflict. Unless this happens, and ‘when institutional channels do not exist for antagonisms to be expressed in an agonistic way, they are likely to explode into violence’.41

During a September 2018 interview, Mouffe was prescient in underlining this point with a reference to social and political issues in France which have since become acute. Her interview took place a couple of months before the first emergence of the ‘mouvement des gilets jaunes’. She stated that she was worried by ‘a situation where political leaders like Emmanuel Macron are so oblivious to the desperation that his policies are causing, [and] unless La France Insoumise [the movement led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon] is able to channel the resistances against Macron in an agonistic way towards a radicalisation of democracy, then for sure they could lead to an explosion of violence … there is a recrudescence precisely of those manifestations of violence at the hands of people who feel that the entire system excludes them. If it has no other way of expressing itself, that anger will explode in violence’.42

This example of Mouffe making very specific points on current social struggles illustrates how, for all its ‘theoretical’ nature, her work quickly generates concrete analysis, and can be directly related to current and practical issues. As Oliver Marchant states, ‘as soon as the essentially antagonistic nature of social space is taken seriously, any given social topography starts to appear in a strongly political light, and one will have to study the contingent, historical and power-ridden moments of its originary institution’.43

The process of applying Mouffe’s theories to particular situations raises the question of whether an instance of political conflict can be defined as ‘agonistic’ or ‘antagonistic’ simply because the terms in which it is expressed. A recent essay by Alex Oaten categorised the treatment of Anna Soubry MP by vociferous pro-Brexit campaigners on the streets around Westminster in January 2019 as an example of ‘antagonistic’ behaviour: ‘a group of angry pro-Brexit protesters bark questions at her and taunt her with jibes of “Nazi” and “Fascist”. Their leader … wearing a high-vis yellow jacket, waves his phone around as he shouts at her … the demonstrators who surrounded Soubry were interested in neither debate nor discussion. As the gang circled, hurling multiple questions at her, along with a steady stream of abuse, it became apparent that these protesters were interested in neither answers nor discussion. They were there to create a highly antagonistic spectacle for consumption on social media … Those who mobbed Soubry … demonstrated the increasingly antagonistic nature of Brexit politics’.44

Oaten elides ‘antagonism’ and ‘populism’, and counterposes the confrontational and abusive treatment of Soubry to democratic politics which involves ‘listening’ as well as ‘speaking’. It may well be the case that the abusive behaviour which Soubry was subjected to expressed ‘antagonism’ – but it is also the case that, in other places, the irreconcilable substantive positions which divide Remainers and Brexiteers have been handled through entirely democratic, orderly and lawful procedure, even whilst partisans of both sides have recognised the impossibility of consensus and agreement. Conversely, conflicts and arguments often arise in personal situations, communities and political life which can take very sharp forms, but where the substantive issues can ‘in the end’ turn out to be susceptible to relatively straightforward resolution. These facts suggest that the ‘antagonistic’ / ‘agonistic’ contrast needs to be considered on different levels, and in relation to both the form and the content of conflicts (though such a classical distinction is open to accusations of ‘essentialism’, i.e. the understanding that the actual conflict has substantive existence prior to and independently of the ways that it is constructed and developed through discourse and identity formation).

In summary, Mouffe’s conception of agonistic process is one in which political actors are ‘adversaries’ rather than ‘enemies’; it envisages serious and real ‘confrontations’, but ones in which there is no aim to destroy ‘the other’, either through annihilation or assimilation; and involves political actors recognising ‘the fact of plurality’ and eschewing the aim of an all-encompassing hegemony, from which no-one and no social force is excluded, in favour of a recognition that ‘things could always be otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities’.45

This precept urges a necessary modesty and restraint on those political forces who would otherwise oppose those of other identities and commitments in ways would be oppressive, destructive and violent: Mouffe’s key argument is that political actors need to see others as agonistic adversaries rather than as enemies.

But this is not a call on people to be over-polite or ‘faint-hearted’ in pursuing and promoting their political agenda. Respecting and being prepared to operate within agnostic limits is entirely compatible with being fully committed to a political project and wanting to win the widest and fullest possible support for it. Most political actors are still likely to be motivated by desires and attempts to fully occupy the entire political landscape. It is the ambition to destroy your opponent which agonistics makes an illegitimate one – but it fully allows the ambition to win them over.

Agreeing to disagree: bringing liberalism back in?

One tension in Mouffe’s work results from occasional but highly significant statements that the agonistic framework she promotes would still exclude some political positions. A fuller version of a quotation already given in the section on ‘agonistics’ above makes this point: ‘The agonistic confrontation is different from the antagonistic one, not because it allows for a possible consensus, but because the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate. Her ideas will be fought with vigour but her right to defend them will never be questioned. The category of enemy does not disappear, however, for it remains pertinent with regard to those who, because they reject the conflictual consensus that constitutes the basis of a pluralist democracy, cannot form part of the agonistic struggle’.46

A different formulation of the same point: ‘in the case of agonism we are not faced with a friend / enemy relation but with one between adversaries who recognise the legitimacy of the demands of their opponent. While knowing that there is no rational solution to their conflict, adversaries nevertheless accept a set of rules according to which their conflict is going to be regulated’.47

The clear consequence of these formulations is that those who do not accept those rules of the ‘agonistic’ processes of political decision making are to be excluded from the field of legitimate politics. They would become the new extremists. By not wanting their adversarial positions to be limited by the rules of agonism, they would put themselves in the category of enemies of political process.

This element of Mouffe’s thinking confirms that there are definite parameters to the field of permissible politics and discourse. The field of agonism which Mouffe advocates may well allow greater conflict and disputation than the field seen as legitimate and rational by those she describes as the liberal proponents of deliberative democracy. The field of agonism is a more expansive and deeper space than the shallow and narrow space of ‘deliberative democracy’ within which we are invited to and could in principle come to agreement on rational positions determined by calm consideration. It incorporates and allows space for forms of radicalism and populism which are sometimes currently seen as being in opposition to ‘mainstream’ politics.48 Nevertheless, this new wider and more complex field remains limited by rules within which we are prepared and able to agree to disagree.

It has to be asked whether or not this aspect of Mouffe’s thinking is effectively – and properly – the reinstatement of some rules and parameters about the acceptable processes of democratic politics which might well be judged ‘liberal’ and ‘silencing’ by those who would not want to accept them?49

‘Conflictual consensus’ and its limits

A similar and related issue arises from Mouffe’s warnings against the arrogant promotion of ‘Western’ standards of models for political and social life. She says that, instead, ‘we should advocate the establishment of a multipolar word … “agonistic’”in the sense that it would acknowledge a plurality of regional poles, organised according to different economic and political models without a central authority. I am not pretending, of course, that this would bring about the end of conflicts, but I am convinced that those conflicts are less likely to take an antagonistic form than in a world where a single economic and political model is presented as the only legitimate one and is imposed on all parties in the name of its supposedly superior rationality and morality’.50

Mouffe proposes that the conflicts that would arise in such a multipolar world would be handled by ‘a multipolar institutional framework that would create the conditions for those conflicts to manifest themselves as agonistic confrontations between adversaries, instead of taking the form of antagonistic struggles between enemies’.51

This seems to be the reintroduction at a later (or more distant) point of a limit and a control that was removed at an earlier (or less distant) point. The political force which determines – and polices – the rules of the ‘multipolar institutional framework’ is, after all, effectively a new rational overseer of the rules of agonistic political contest. The force may be made up of people from different countries and different intellectual and political traditions, but the shared and overlapping values which they arrive at in order to shape their determination of the limits to the ‘framework’ will surely have a particular political content, and for some who feel those limits, these are likely to feel like a form of western liberalism.

There is a familiar pattern in Mouffe’s counter-position of agonistic confrontations to the consensus-focussed politics of centrist liberalism, underpinned by a contrasting of agonistic confrontations to antagonistic struggles, and then of setting of limits to agonistic confrontations, outside of which and against which any opposition would effectively be antagonistic and existentially threatening. It echoes those ontological arguments in which the ground is shifted to another level of explanation, and where problems that are taken to be insoluble at one level are taken to be magically resolved at another.

One example of such a shift is the theological argument for the existence of god along the lines that the complex and varied character of the universe means that it must have some kind of an external creator or designer. When this argument is countered or tested with the question as to what, then, created such a god, the frequent answer is that god, in essence, is a self-creating and self-determining thing. In the face of this manoeuvre, it is possible to argue that this ‘essential’ quality of being self-creating and self-determining can logically be ‘taken back’ to the first level, so that the complex and varied universe can itself be posited as a self-creating and self-determining thing, which does not need an external ‘other’ to explain its existence.

If agonistics allows the possibility for those political and social confrontations which trouble liberalism to take place and to be had out in a non-antagonistic form, at the same time as it is still the case that there are agnostic rules which must be accepted, and that these rules delineate and limit the field of legitimate politics, this involves recognising that there remains a wider antagonism which agonistics does not cover.

This is captured in James Martin’s introduction to an important collection of Mouffe’s work: ‘agonistic democratic theory … begins from the impossibility of reconciling all social demands without exclusion or violence. But if differences cannot be harmonised, as liberals and neo-liberal social democrats envisaged, nevertheless they can engage each other in democratic encounters. A successful democratic order … is not one that erases division and conflict, but rather one that reduces outright antagonism in favour of managed conflict. That entails, as Mouffe coins it, a conflictual consensus, where contrasting differences of principle acknowledge each other’s legitimacy but still remain opposed. Only by providing a stage (or stages) for the airing of radical differences can dangerous forms of hostility and violence be reduced’.52

It is clear from this formulation that there are to be ‘managers’ of the forms and processes of conflict, and ‘providers’ of stages: and such ‘forms’ and ‘stages’ will have their limits. ‘Rules’ will need to be set – and maintained. Those who do not respect the rules will be new ‘enemies’ of legitimate democratic politics – effectively they will be the new ‘extremists’.

This stance is entirely proper. Agonistics may well widen and deepen the field of legitimate political confrontations far beyond the possible limits of acceptability recognised by the procedures of ‘deliberative democracy’ rooted in the thinking of Rawls and Habermas, but it is still a field which needs defending against those who do not accept its rules and norms.

In some of her recent interviews, Mouffe has been explicit and assertive about the need to assert this principle, i.e. that through the creation of a new, expansive terrain of ‘the political’, there will still be the need for defined legitimate boundaries and limits. In the context of the continuing rise of right-wing forms of populism, there is much at stake, and the disorganisation and destruction of democratic norms, including through the corruption of political discourse, is a worrying threat today. After all, as Mouffe has warned, in the event that it is diminished and displaced, a ‘democracy that is in good working order – with conflict, but where people accept the existence of their adversaries – [would not be] easy to re-establish’.53

Discussion notes published April 2019


Depending on feedback received etc., these notes may be developed into a piece for hard-copy publication. The editor of publishes hard-copy material, including journal articles, as Mike Makin-Waite.

1. As Oliver Marchant’s usefully summarises, Laclau and Mouffe ‘followed a double strategy. On the one side they aimed at deconstructing the essentialist assumptions of orthodox Marxism: its class reductionism and economic determinism. On the other side they strengthened and brought to new life Antonio Gramsci’s category of hegemony, which turned out to be the key tool for undermining the deterministic assumptions of more traditional variants of Marxism’. Oliver Marchant, Thinking Antagonism: political ontology after Laclau, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2018, p17.
2. See Chantal Mouffe and Inigo Errejon, Podemos: in the name of the people, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 2016; and, amongst articles and interviews available in print and online, Raphaëlle Besse Desmoulières, ‘Chantal Mouffe, the philosopher who inspires Jean-Luc Mélenchon’, 6 January 2017; Chantal Mouffe, ‘Populists are on the rise but this can be a moment for progressives too’, The Guardian, 10 September 2018; Michael Calderbank, ‘For A Left Populism: an interview with Chantal Mouffe’, Red Pepper, Autumn 2018.
3. Peter C Baker, ‘‘We the people’: the battle to define populism’, The Guardian, 10 January 2019.
4. Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: thinking the world politically, Verso, London, 2013, pxii (hereafter Agonistics).
5. Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism, Verso, London, 2018, p87 (hereafter Left Populism).
6. Agonistics, pxii.
7. Agonistics, pp2 – 3.
8. Agonistic, pp1 – 2.
9. For a survey of the concept and the multiple ways it has been used, see Perry Anderson, The H-Word: the peripeteia of hegemony, Verso, London, 2017.
10. Agonistics, p.2.
11. Agonistics, p5.
12. Agonistics, p45.
13. David Howarth, Discourse: concepts in the social sciences, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 2000, p105.
14. Left Populism, pp88-89.
15. Agonistics, p125.
16. Left Populism, p89.
17. Chantal Mouffe, ‘Populists are on the rise but this can be a moment for progressives too’, The Guardian, 10 September 2018.
18. Agonistics, p.7. The same formulation is repeated in Left Populism, p93.
19. Agonistics, p8.
20. McKenzie Wark, ‘Chantal Mouffe on the crisis within liberal democracy’, , 17 June 2016.
21. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, Verso, London, 2005, p49.
22. Left Populism, p37
23. Agonistics, p3.
24. Agonistics, pp 136 – 137.
25. Chantal Mouffe interviewed by Rosemary Bechler, ‘Left Populism over the years’. 10 September 2018 (hereafter Mouffe / Bechler)
26. Agonistics, p92.
27. Agonistics, pp 136 – 137.
28. Chantal Mouffe, ‘Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics’, , 29 December 2014.
29. See Agonistics, pp45 – 46.
30. Mouffe / Bechler. Mouffe provides a detailed account of the first two decades of Jörg Haider’s leadership of the Freedom Party of Austria in ‘The “End of Politics” and the Challenge of Right-wing Populism’, which forms chapter two of Francisco Panizza, editor, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, Verso, London, 2005.
31. Chantal Mouffe, editor, The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, Verso, London, 1999.
32. James Martin, ‘Introduction: democracy and conflict in the work of Chantal Mouffe’, in Martin, ed, Chantal Mouffe: hegemony, radical democracy and the political, Routledge, Abingdon, 2013, p5.
33. Raphaëlle Besse Desmoulières, ‘Chantal Mouffe, the philosopher who inspires Jean-Luc Mélenchon’, 6 January 2017.
34. Left Populism, pp15-16.
35. Mouffe is by no means the only political theorist to have promoted a version of agonistics and to have contrasted such an approach to antagonistic conflict. Others who have done so include Hannah Arendt; Bonnie Honig, who is influenced by Arendt; and William Connolly, who draws from Friedrich Nietzsche. Mouffe has set out the differences between her conception of agonism and her understanding of the conceptions promoted by these thinkers, including in Agonistics, pp9-15, and in summary form in ‘Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics’, , 29 December 2014.
36. Left Populism, p92.
37. Agonistics, p41.
38. Agonistics, pxii.
39. Agonistics, p48.
40. Agonistics, pxii.
41. Agonistics, p122.
42. Mouffe / Bechler.
43. Oliver Marchant, Thinking Antagonism: political ontology after Laclau, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2018, p98.
44. Alex Oaten, ‘Anna Soubry, Brexit, and the rise of antagonistic politics’, , 11 January 2019.
45. Agonistics, p.2.
46. Left Populism, p92.
47. Agonistics, p138. In this section of her book Mouffe discusses how her work developed through a critical reading of Carl Schmitt, and why she thinks ‘with Schmitt against Schmitt’: ‘I start by acknowledging, with Schmitt, the antagonistic dimension of the political, i.e., the permanence of conflicts which cannot have a rational solution. The friend / enemy relation concerns a negation which cannot be overcome dialectically. However, this antagonistic conflict can take different forms … the Schmittian form of friend and enemy … [or] agonism’.
48. Part of the response of ‘the mainstream’ has been to characterise any and all new movements and organisations which oppose established governing parties, policies and leaders as ‘populist’, with the result, in Perry Anderson’s view, that ‘the term now suffers such inflation as the all-purpose bugbear of the bien pensant media that its utility has declined’. London Review of Books, 7 February 2019.
49. As Lasse Thomassen states, ‘Mouffe has succeeded in bringing mainstream – deliberative, liberal and communitarian – democratic theory into conversation with other strands of thought, above all Schmitt and poststructuralism. However, it has opened her to critique from both sides. For both those who defend deliberative democracy and those who take a more radical stance vis-à-vis liberal democracy, it is unclear that Mouffe’s position is that different from a deliberative or liberal one that allows for pluralism and conflict’. ‘Hegemony, populism and democracy: Laclau and Mouffe today’, Revista Española de Ciencia Política 40, March 2016.
50. Agonistics, p22.
51. Agonistics, p41.
52. James Martin, ‘Introduction: democracy and conflict in the work of Chantal Mouffe’, in Martin, ed, Chantal Mouffe: hegemony, radical democracy and the political, Routledge, Abingdon, 2013, p6.
53. Andy Beckett, ‘The death of consensus: how conflict came back to politics’, The Guardian, 20 September 2018.