Skip to main content
Log in

Agonistic Critiques of Liberalism: Perfection and Emancipation

  • Article
  • Published:
Contemporary Political Theory Aims and scope

Abstract

Agonism is a political theory that places contestation at the heart of politics. Agonistic theorists charge liberal theory with a depoliticization of pluralism through an excessive focus on consensus. This paper examines the agonistic critiques of liberalism from a normative perspective. I argue that by itself the argument from pluralism is not sufficient to support an agonistic account of politics, but points to further normative commitments. Analyzing the work of Mouffe, Honig, Connolly, and Owen, I identify two normative currents of agonistic theory: emancipatory agonism, aimed at challenging violence and exclusion, and perfectionist agonism, aimed at the cultivation of nobility. From a normative perspective the former presents an internal challenge to liberalism, while the latter constitutes an external challenge to liberalism by providing a competing account of the ends of politics. Recognition of the distinction between emancipatory and perfectionist agonism is crucial in assessing the purchase of agonistic critiques of liberalism. Furthermore, this analysis draws us beyond the simple opposition between contestation and consensus. It is not simply a question of valuing genuine pluralism and therefore criticizing consensus; rather the question comes to be: what are the ends of politics?

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. I express my gratitude to Herman Siemens and Bert van den Brink for invaluable discussions and commentary. I also thank David Owen and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

  2. Assessments of the agonistic critique have come mainly from the deliberative perspective (Brady, 2004; Dryzek, 2005; Knops, 2007). See also Schaap's response to this debate (2006) and his recent review article (2007). Deveaux (1999) examines agonism as a very broad category, including Arendt's theory of political action and Barber's republicanism. Villa (1999) critically examines agonism but takes its critique of liberalism for granted. Finally, Acampora (2003) and Siemens (2001) examine agonism in relation to Nietzsche.

  3. It should be pointed out that rationalism is criticized as a starting point for political theorizing from within the liberal tradition as well (Waldron, 1999, 149–163; Friedman, 2000; van den Brink, 2005). For a critique of Mouffe's arguments on this point, see Knops (2007).

  4. Tully (2002) makes a similar argument in which he situates the activity of critical reasoning within social practices.

  5. The critique of depoliticization has historical roots that extend beyond the current agonistic critique of liberalism, for instance, in the work of Arendt (1998) and Schmitt (1996).

  6. For an agonistic critique of this distinction in Arendt, see Honig (1993, 118–124).

  7. Rawls's later work fares no better on Honig's account (1993, 195–199).

  8. This is well illustrated by Knops (2007), who criticizes Mouffe's conception of reason and deliberation.

  9. Note that Rawls (2005, 260) explicitly rejects a civic humanist account of politics as fundamentally opposed to political liberalism. This already points to the divide between these conceptions of politics that I aim to show below.

  10. This distinction between the exercise and opportunity concepts of freedom was first drawn by Taylor (1985). See Siemens (2006) for an elaboration of Nietzsche's conception of freedom as the exercise of capacities.

References

  • Acampora, C.D. (2003) ‘Demos agonistes redux: reflections on the streit of political agonism’, Nietzsche-Studien 32: 374–390.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arendt, H. (1998) The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Barry, B.M. (2001) Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brady, J.S. (2004) ‘No contest? Assessing the agonistic critiques of Jurgen Habermas's theory of the public sphere’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 30 (3): 331–354.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cavell, S. (1990) Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conant, J. (2001) ‘Nietzsche's Perfectionism: A Reading of Schopenhauer as Educator’, in R. Schacht (ed.) Nietzsche's Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche's Prelude to Philosophy's Future, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 181–257.

    Google Scholar 

  • Connolly, W.E. (1991) IdentityDifference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deveaux, M. (1999) ‘Agonism and pluralism’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 25 (4): 1–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dryzek, J.S. (2005) ‘Deliberative democracy in divided societies: alternatives to agonism and analgesia’, Political Theory 33 (2): 218–242.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, M. (2000) ‘John Rawls and the Political Coercion of Unreasonable People’, in V. Davion and C. Wolf (eds.) The Idea of a Political Liberalism, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 16–33.

    Google Scholar 

  • Habermas, J. (1996) Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hatab, L.J. (1995) A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy: An Experiment in Postmodern Politics, Chicago: Open Court.

    Google Scholar 

  • Honig, B. (1993) Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Karagiannis, N. and Wagner, P. (2005) ‘Towards a theory of synagonism’, Journal of Political Philosophy 13 (3): 235–262.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Knops, A. (2007) ‘Debate: agonism as deliberation — on Mouffe's theory of democracy’, Journal of Political Philosophy 15 (1): 115–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd edn, London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mouffe, C. (1993) The Return of the Political, London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mouffe, C. (1995) ‘Democratic Politics and the Question of Identity’, in J. Rajchman (ed.) Identity in Question, New York: Routledge, pp. 31–42.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox, London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mouffe, C. (2005) On the Political, London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owen, D. (1995) Nietzsche, Politics and Modernity, London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owen, D. (2002) ‘Equality, democracy, and self-respect: reflections on Nietzsche's agonal perfectionism’, Journal of Nietzsche Studies (24): 113–131.

  • Rawls, J. (1999a) ‘Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical’, in S. Freeman (ed.) Collected Papers, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 388–414.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawls, J. (1999b) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawls, J. (2005) Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Raz, J. (1986) The Morality of Freedom, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rorty, R. (1991) Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schaap, A. (2006) ‘Agonism in divided societies’, Philosophy & Social Criticism 32 (2): 255–277.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schaap, A. (2007) ‘Political theory and the agony of politics’, Political Studies Review 5 (1): 56–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schmitt, C. (1996) The Concept of the Political, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sen, A.K. (2006) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Siemens, H. (2001) ‘Nietzsche's political philosophy: a review of recent literature’, Nietzsche-Studien 30: 509–526.

    Google Scholar 

  • Siemens, H. (2006) ‘Nietzsche Contra Liberalism on Freedom’, in K. Ansell-Pearson (ed.) A Companion to Nietzsche, New York: Blackwell, pp. 437–454.

    Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, C. (ed.) (1985) ‘What's Wrong with Negative Liberty?’, in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Tully, J. (2002) ‘Political philosophy as a critical activity’, Political Theory 30 (4): 533–555.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van den Brink, B. (2005) ‘Liberalism without Agreement: Political Autonomy and Agonistic Citizenship’, in J. Christman and J. Anderson (eds.) Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 245–271.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Villa, D. (ed.) (1999) ‘Democratizing the Agon: Nietzsche, Arendt, and the Agonistic Tendency in Recent Political Theory’, in Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 107–127.

    Google Scholar 

  • Waldron, J. (1999) Law and Disagreement, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fossen, T. Agonistic Critiques of Liberalism: Perfection and Emancipation. Contemp Polit Theory 7, 376–394 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2008.15

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/cpt.2008.15

Keywords

Navigation