Reason and power: Difference, structural implication, and political transformation

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Abstract

One of the central issues facing contemporary political theory is the problem of difference. This problem is perhaps clearest in disagreements regarding the role of pluralism between advocates of deliberative, and agonistic, approaches to democracy. According to agonists, deliberative democracy has only paid lip-service to pluralism, emphasising agreement, consensus, and universalism. Instead, agonists argue that we should accommodate incommensurable difference as central to political organisation. But this shift threatens to emphasise particularity at the expense of commonality, so preventing the transformation of social positions. These debates turn largely around the ways in which power is conceived in relation to democratic interaction, with deliberativists emphasising ideals of free and equal discourse, and agonists, the irreducible role of power. I begin by outlining a structural approach to social power, to show how we are all structurally implicated in power relationships. I go on to show how emphasising structural implication shifts us beyond debates that revolve around difference, drawing attention to the more foundational problem of how agents may come to understand these structures and each other, in ways that surpass or transcend the specific constraints acting upon them. Considering this, I develop a complex account of structural implication that emphasises the relationships between social norms, reasoning, and objective power relationships. This approach illuminates lacunae in similar approaches, particularly regarding the way in which structural power disenables us from often seeing structural imbalances of power, and clarifies the ways in which collective political transformation is possible.

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Acknowledgements

Versions of this article were presented at the Dutch Arts Institute, the University of York, and London Conference in Critical Thought. I thank participants at these events for their helpful comments, as well as to Tom Trevatt and the reviewers for their incisive suggestions on previous drafts.

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Correspondence to James Trafford.

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Trafford, J. Reason and power: Difference, structural implication, and political transformation. Contemp Polit Theory 18, 227–247 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-018-0256-x

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Keywords

  • structural power
  • difference
  • reasoning
  • freedom
  • deliberative democracy
  • agonism