Only in politics are people willing to talk of “trials of strength.” Politicians are the scapegoats, the sacrificial lambs. We deride, despise, and hate them. We compete to denounce their venality and incompetence, their blinkered vision, their schemes and compromises, their failures, their pragmatism or lack of realism, their demagogy. Only in politics are trials of strength thought to define the shape of things. It is only politicians who are thought to be dishonest, who are held to grope in the dark. … It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician.
Introducing the category of the ‘adversary’ requires complexifying the notion of antagonism and distinguishing two different forms in which it can emerge, antagonism properly speaking and agonism. Antagonism is struggle between enemies, while agonism is struggle between adversaries. We can therefore reformulate our problem by saying that envisaged from the perspective of ‘agonistic pluralism’ the aim of democratic politics is to transform antagonism into agonism. This requires providing channels through which collective passions will be given ways to express themselves over issues which, while allowing enough possibility for identification, will not construct the opponent as an enemy but as an adversary. An important difference with the model of ‘deliberative democracy’ is that for ‘agonistic pluralism’, the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions from the sphere of the public, in order to render a rational consensus possible, but to mobilize those passions towards democratic designs.
One of the keys to the thesis of agonistic pluralism is that, far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence. Modern democracy’s specificity lies in the recognition and legitimation of conflict and the refusal to suppress it by imposing an authoritarian order. Breaking with the symbolic representation of society as an organic body — which was characteristic of the holist mode of social organization — a democratic society acknowledges the pluralism of values, the ‘disenchantment of the world’ diagnosed by Max Weber and the unavoidable conflicts that it entails.
I agree with those who affirm that a pluralist democracy demands a certain amount of consensus and that it requires allegiance to the values which constitute its ‘ethico-political principles’. But since those ethico-political principles can only exist through many different and conflicting interpretations, such a consensus is bound to be a ‘conflictual consensus’. This is indeed the privileged terrain of agonistic confrontation among adversaries. Ideally such a confrontation should be staged around the diverse conceptions of citizenship which correspond to the different interpretations of the ethica-political principles: liberal-conservative, social-democratic, neo-liberal, radical-democratic, and so on. Each of them proposes its own interpretation of the ‘common good’, and tries to implement a different form of hegemony. To foster allegiance to its institutions, a democratic system requires the availability of those contending forms of citizenship identification. They provide the terrain in which passions can be mobilized around democratic objectives and antagonism transformed into agonism.
A well-functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. If this is missing there is the danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a confrontation among other forms of collective identification, as is the case with identity politics. Too much emphasis on consensus and the refusal of confrontation lead to apathy and disaffection with political participation. Worse still, the result can be the crystallization of collective passions around issues which cannot be managed by the democratic process and an explosion of antagonisms that can tear up the very basis of civility.
It is for that reason that the ideal of a pluralist democracy cannot be to reach a rational consensus in the public sphere. Such a consensus cannot exist. We have to accept that every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power, and that it always entails some form of exclusion. The ideas that power could be dissolved through a rational debate and that legitimacy could be based on pure rationality are illusions which can endanger democratic institutions.