Chantal Mouffe on Liberalism’s Compatibility With Democratic Politics

Chantal Mouffe on Liberalism’s Compatibility With Democratic Politics

…The tradition of associational socialism can contribute to the deepening of the pluralism that is constitutive of liberal democracy. But this requires a rejection of the atomistic liberal vision of an individual that could exist with her rights and interests prior to and independently of her inscription in a community. While such a vision is often considered to be an intrinsic part of liberalism, it is in fact only the result of the specific type of articulation that was established historically between individualism and political liberalism. To be sure, it is an articulation that has played an important role in the emergence of modern democracy, but it has subsequently become an obstacle to its deepening. Today, an individualistic framework renders impossible the extension of the democratic revolution to an ensemble of social relations whose specificity can only be grasped by recognizing the multiplicity of the identities and subject positions that make up an individual.

Chantal Mouffe, “Towards a Liberal Socialism.”

Contrary to some expectations, support for liberalism hasn’t always entailed an automatic support for either democracy specifically or political life generally. This is especially true if by democracy, we mean the Grecian ideal of direct rule by the people. In the city-state democracies of antiquity, most notably Athens, the select few citizens included in the body politic didn’t elect representatives to speak on their behalf. Instead they met in the assembly to deliberate and choose policies and laws themselves; a fact in which the Athenians took great pride. Indeed, contrary to conceptions of “negative liberty” still popular today which hold that real liberty is in effect freedom from politics and government, Thucydides records the Athenians as seeing their personal freedom and dignity as integrally linked to their ability to participate in the political life of the city.

They even linked this political freedom to the meritocratic ideal, regarding democracy as a means of allowing the best to rise in a way private enterprises could not. As Pericles orates in The Peloponnesian War “it is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.”

One consistent criticism of liberalism has been its wariness or even outright hostility towards a democratic political life. At best, politics in liberal societies is seen as taking place in the narrow domain of the legislature, where elected representatives organize into elite-driven parties who create policies based as much on their self-interest as the will of the citizenry. Given this, it should come as no surprise that many citizens have little faith in liberal democratic institutions. At worst, in The Human Condition Hannah Arendt accused liberal modernity of almost completely sidelining the life of politics for a private existence focused on self-gratification and the pursuit of material well being through the market.

Politics was seen as maybe a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless. This obviously had and has a deep link with the Reaganite suspicion that “government is the problem.” Though not, of course, when government is in the business of locking up millions who pose a danger to an orderly market-based society or taking the side of capital against striking labor movements. Government becomes a problem when it is mobilized to interfere with the hierarchies and power dynamics that emerge from competition within the market, to artificially redistribute what has been earned by the talented and successful in the pursuit of their self interest. 

Chantal Mouffe is one thinker who has probed these issues with admirable depth and considerable power over the course of a long career. While she is most famous for her classic work of critical theory Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-authored with Ernesto Laclau, many of her most intriguing essays criticize liberal democracy from a democratic and pluralistic perspective. While there are serious limitations to her analysis, and she sidelines issues that should be prioritized by left-liberals, Mouffe deserves recognition for highlighting a problem with liberal democracy decades before it bore dark fruit.

Mouffe on hegemony, strategy and radical democracy 

By the late 1980s it was the Soviet Union had long ceased to offer a credible alternative for the left and neoliberal capitalism was on its way up. While few of us today mourn the death of the totalitarian Soviet state, the era was also marked by a pronounced rollback of the social democratic welfare states that many had assumed were the best fusion of both worlds. Greed was good again, and the political momentum of the labor movement and other groups agitating for economic fairness was sucked dry. Everywhere it seemed like Margaret Thatcher was right that not only was there no alternative to capitalism, but even to the kind of gloves off capitalism that has since come to define the neoliberal era. 

It was in this hostile climate that Mouffe and Laclau published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985. Beneath all its dense theorizing and long philosophical histories was a fairly simple thesis. The leftist attempt to confront capitalism had largely failed, precipitating a crisis in left-theory. Without some kind of socialist or Marxist framework around which to unify, it was unclear what progressives could do to confront the injustices and forms of domination that persisted or even worsened within a neoliberal context. Mouffe and Laclau argued that the solution had to be abandoning most elements of Marxism—its universalism, big picture vision of history, emphasis on class—for a more post-modern and flexible approach. This would recognize that power, and the hegemonic ideologies backing it up, could never be conceived or confronted along one broad front. For instance by seizing control of the “superstructure” of the capitalist state to transform the base of economic relations.

Instead we needed to follow Foucault and his peers in recognizing that power originated and operated in a wide variety of contexts, often serving as a means of imposing uniformity across a much more differentiated body politic in the name of creating a homogenous “society” committed to the same kind of values.  To avoid replicating this mistake, the left had to avoid organizing around a singular set of reforms or a single identity like the working class. Instead, different groups had to resist or reorient power at the local level. To the extent we could commit ourselves to a grander vision of social transformation, Mouffe and Laclau argued it would have to be to a kind of “radical and plural” democracy. One where the different groups within society didn’t subordinate their identities and values to political hegemony, but instead maintained them while simultaneously converging with others to confront domineering forms of power.  

This can all seem more than a little ambiguous, and in its presentation it often is. Part of the problem is the project of radical democracy rejects the very idea of a singular perspective or program which is to unify different marginalized groups in society, since that would undermine the community to pluralism Laclau and Mouffe hold dear. Unfortunately this often comes at the expense of providing any specificity on the kind of institutions or practices that would be required in a radical democracy. This is an all too common fault with some flavors of critical theory, which become so committed to a “radical ideal” it seems too conformist to even explain what realizing the ideal would entail beyond some theoretical generalizations. 

Laclau and Mouffe’s specific argument suffers from some serious philosophical and practical difficulties. Firstly, an obvious example is the paradox of trying to argue for respect for particular differences without appealing to some kind of universalism. Without making a general point the value of human differences and asserting it against those who hold a different opinion.

Why should those who hold chauvinistic perspectives about the supremacy of their belief system be required to abandon it since their supremacist views can easily be reformulated as part of their unique and particular identity? Do white identitarians get included in a radically pluralistic democracy, and are they entitled to resist the forms of liberal and progressive power that constrain them? Does sincere respect for difference also mean respect for differences of rank, wealth, and social status? Edmund Burke and Nietzsche certainly thought so. 

Second and relatedly, Laclau and Mouffe’s radically pluralistic democracy would have real difficulties and even an antipathy to weighing priorities and adjudicating between different kinds of political claims.  This is because any attempt to do so would entail imposing one’s views on others who might hold different priorities or be more committed to certain claims. If this seems a bit abstract, consider again the example above. Are the kinds of “difference” progressives should respect and defend against power those asserted by the right?

After all, differences in social status are often related to longstanding cultural traditions and expectations, which have often served to reinforce patriarchy, class oppression, or any number of illiberal hierarchies. Most of us would say no. But why are claims to respect those kinds of difference distinct from claims to respect other’s; for instance differences in sexual orientation or gender identity? Laclau and Mouffe would struggle to say, and their radical democracy would find it impossible to make these kinds of assessments without coming down from the theoretical heavens to the messy world of actual decision making.

Mouffe on liberal democracy 

Mouffe is on much more solid ground when she’s pointing out the limitations of late 20th century liberal democratic politics. In part replying to some of the critics of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, she insisted that her position wasn’t strictly speaking anti-universalistic but anti-foundationalist.  Drawing on the work of pragmatist philosophers like the left-liberal Richard Rorty, Mouffe argued that what she was looking for was a universally emancipatory politics that didn’t need to rely on the kinds of strong metaphysical and moral claims traditionally made by philosophers from John Locke through to Marx and his offspring.

More than just a technical point, this anti-foundationalism was central to her critique of contemporary representative democracy, which she felt remained committed to exclusionary and anti-democratic policies justified by the bad philosophical and anthropological assumptions of too many liberal and now neoliberal thinkers. As she put it in her seminal essay “On the Articulation Between Liberalism and Democracy”

Many of the problems facing liberal democracies today stem from the fact that politics has been reduced to an instrumental activity, to the selfish pursuit of private interests. The limiting of democracy to a mere set of neutral procedures, the transformation of citizens into political consumers, and the liberal insistence on a supposed ‘neutrality’ of the state, have emptied politics of all substance. It has been reduced to economics and stripped of all ethical components. 

Mouffe was criticizing the technocratic assumptions that increasingly underpinned the neoliberal state and global order in the late 20th and early 21st century. This impacted even the left of center parties in much of the developed world; from Clinton’s Democrats to Labour under Tony Blair. The assumption was, as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, that history was over and the eternal hegemony of neoliberal capitalism as the dominant ideology was assured.

Consequently there was no longer any need for a politics centered around big ideological questions, since the question of the best form of society had been settled. It would be one where the state and international law served to encase and expand the market, even in the face of critical pressure, led by elite technocrats well versed in their Hayek and Gary Becker. International relations would largely become pacified and regional. Domestic squabbles would center around the best form of capitalism to satisfy consumer demand. As Fukuyama lamented in his famous essay:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.

Citizens would be granted a substantial array of classical liberal rights, guaranteed within “reasonable limits,” and in some circumstances a minimal degree of state protection from economic precarity and unemployment. The remaining political issues that would dominate liberal democratic politics would center around fairly marginal issues. How far and to whom classical liberal rights should be extended—to LGBTQ individuals? To illegal migrants?  Just how minimal state protections should be, and did these complement or pose a restraint on economic growth? Dissent on more fundamental issues would be tolerated, but carefully managed by the strictures of neoliberal law. 

  Neoliberal technocracy tended to justify itself through different kinds of rationalistic appeals. Gary Becker reconceptualized huge swathes of human choices in terms of calculations of rational self-interest, even redefining marriage in terms of comparative economic advantage. This gave a feeling of inexorability to neoliberalism, suggesting it flowed from a foundational anthropology-self—an essential human nature—which could not be changed. F. A. Hayek gave an elaborate account of the economy as an information sharing network which had evolved over time outside of any deliberate human design. Any attempt to change it by political actions, for instance by appealing to moral standards of social justice or even merit, could only end in disaster as people interfered with what they could not possibly fully understand. 

Mouffe’s anti-foundationalist and democratic arguments were intended to poke holes in these rationalistic conceits. She pointed out that the allegedly rational and neutral frameworks through which classical liberal ideas were propagated were in fact built on a wide swathe of assumptions which could in fact be challenged. For instance, appealing to the competing anthropology put forward by communitarian egalitarians like Michael Walzer, Mouffe points out that it is a serious mistake to simply assume all that people care about is pursuing their self interest through unimpeded economic growth at any price.

In fact human beings hold a pluralism of different values and interests, often combining and choosing between them in complex ways that are very much determined by personality and culture. If this turned out to be the case then the anthropological assumptions on which classical liberalism and its neoliberal progeny were based fall apart. We could better understand why people care about issues like fairness, equality, and intrinsic dignity rather than simply economic worth and might have to refocus our politics on prioritizing them. 

But more importantly, Mouffe highlights how the “there is no alternative” rationalizations of late 20th century right-wing liberals had a fundamentally anti-democratic dimension to it. Rather than acknowledging the plurality of opinions and beliefs out there, many of which were based on real needs and values, neoliberal ideology either swept them aside as irrational or outdated or tried to relegate them to the public sphere where they could have no influence on public policy and the market. This led to a gradual feeling that people were being disempowered, and that democratic processes were little more than fig leaf over control by elites (feelings that were by no means unwarranted). Given this, Mouffe held that we shouldn’t be surprised that there was eventually a backlash against the depoliticization and anti-democratic hegemony of neoliberalism. Though, as she put it in a 2018 article for the Guardian, this was not necessarily the backlash many progressives wanted to see:

“In recent years, various resistance movements have emerged. They embody what Karl Polanyi presented in The Great Transformation as a “countermovement”, by which society reacts against the process of marketisation and pushes for social protection. This countermovement, he pointed out, could take progressive or regressive forms. This ambivalence is also true of today’s populist moment. In several European countries those resistances have been captured by right wing parties that have articulated, in a nationalistic and xenophobic vocabulary, the demands of those abandoned by the centre-left.

Right wing populists proclaim they will give back to the people the voice that has been captured by the “elites”. They understand that politics is always partisan and requires an us/them confrontation. Furthermore, they recognise the need to mobilise the realm of emotion and sentiment in order to construct collective political identities. Drawing a line between the “people” and the “establishment”, they openly reject the post-political consensus.”

So the danger, it seems, in suppressing politics for too long is that it comes back with a vengeance.

The limits of mouffe’s anti-liberalism 

Mouffe often seems uncertain about just how far she wants to go in criticizing liberalism and liberal democracy. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy the kind of radical democracy she and Laclau argued for was presented as almost an alternative to both 20th century liberalism and socialism. But since then she has variably argued it is better understood as a kind of “liberal socialism,” or presented herself as espousing a “radical liberal democratic political philosophy.” More recently she has shifted to endorsing a kind of “left populism” and a “Green Democratic Transformation.” But these shifts shouldn’t obscure that Mouffe remains broadly committed to upholding representative institutions and mobilizes around popular political figures like Bernie Sanders and AOC rather than revolutionaries who want to smash the liberal state. 

I think that a lot of the ambivalence that emerges from Mouffe’s work comes from its far too pugnacious anti-foundationalism. With Rawls, I don’t think there can be any avoiding the burdens of moral judgment. This often requires us, as Mouffe knows, to make complex judgments when faced with a plurality of different values and aspirations we might want to realize.  But in these circumstances we should do our best to prioritize them through rational analysis and reflective equilibrium, rather than simply turning to something like Schmittian decisionism.

These foundational issues map onto everyday politics as well. There are indeed a plurality of different viewpoints in society, and a good liberal should not only accept but welcome the permanence of widespread disagreement about he best kind of life to live. The existence of difference reflects the admirable diversity of our experiments in living. But accepting the reality of pluralism, and the need to be politically tolerant, doesn’t require us to regard all competing views as equally valid. We shouldn’t be afraid as liberals or leftists to condemn certain positions as, not simply unappealing or even undemocratic, but wrong from their foundations upwards. As is the case with an increasingly popular doctrine like post-liberalism

Saying that, Mouffe is absolutely right that the appeal of right-wing populists and post-modern conservatives like Donald Trump and Victor Orban owes a lot to people’s anger towards technocratic elites and indifferent institutions. From that standpoint the return of real politics was not only inevitable, but in many respects to be welcomed as an opportunity to reconceive the proper balance that needs to be struck between liberalism and democracy. I think the right balance would be to continue enforcing and expanding individual and group rights which protect and empower individuals to pursue their vision of the good life; whatever that may be. This should include expanding people’s rights to vote and participate in political life.

Linked to this should be a program that takes further strides at further democratizing socio-political and economic institutions that wield a sufficiently powerful influence on society. We would need to take steps to reform or replace the more overtly anti-majoritarian institutions that still pervade many states; from the American senate to the first past-the post electoral system used in many Anglo-sphere countries. The workplace should also be democratized through fostering the rebirth of the labor movement, and encouraging a transition to worker cooperatives which would have pleased J. S. Mill. Finally, we could more towards experimentation with deliberative democratic models of the sort being pioneered in Scotland. It is quite possible that all these changes could also have a ripple effect on encouraging more robust action on climate change, since empirical research suggests majorities often want their government to take more concerted action.

In his great book Liberalism: The Life of An Idea Edmund Fawcett points out that there are two ways liberal democracy can go wrong. Either it isn’t liberal enough, or it isn’t democratic enough. Radical democracy of the type Mouffe puts forward seems to me insufficiently liberal; ironically sometimes she cedes far too much to radical critics on the political right like the Nazi Carl Schmitt. But she is absolutely right that neoliberalism of the sort we have seen for the past 40 years has not been nearly democratic enough; and I would go further and say that in its toleration of widespread inequality and precarity neoliberalism itself isn’t the kind of liberalism we should want. If liberal democracy is to survive, it desperately needs a democratic moment of the sort we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.