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Fr. 493

March 7, 2014

For this reason, Mouffe attempts to reintroduce adversity and opposition at two distinct levels within society. First, she secures a permanent element of contention in specifying her particular vision of citizenship. For her, radical democratic citizenship:

“[…] will emphasize the numerous social relations where relations of domination exist and must be challenged if the principles of liberty and equality are to apply. It should lead to a common recognition among different groups struggling for an extension and radicalization of democracy that they have a common concern and that in choosing their actions they should subscribe to certain rules of conduct; in other words, it should construct a common political identity as radical democratic citizens” (The Return of the Political, p. 70).

In other words, radical democratic citizens are bound by their common goals of challenging and overturning oppressive power relations wherever these might be found such that all might better exercise the rights secured by the liberal democratic political association. Accordingly, such citizenship would craft a common political identity for marginalized groups and interests seeking recognition from a dominating, normalizing adversary; existing groups such as blacks, women, workers, gays, ecologists and so on would show mutual support for one another’s causes.

Yet this first level of contention does not suffice insofar as it would limit the interpretation of citizenship to a uniquely radical democratic framework. As such, room must be made at the level above for second-order conflict as well, as concerns the definition and specific content that goes into the different interpretations of citizenship by the different parties within democratic society and the liberal political association. Liberals, civic republicans, libertarians, deliberative democrats, participatory democrats, radical democrats: these are not simply differences in theoretical perspective but, more importantly, a plurality of views concerning the responsibilities and concrete content of citizenship.

In other words, such groups might well agree on the rules to be respected by citizens but differ on how those rules are best instantiated within citizens, citizenry and citizenship. More simply, what kind of citizen best embodies those ideals? It is precisely this notion of rivality and revision that distances Mouffe from Rawls and puts her more closely in line with the thought of Jeffrey Stout, amongst others. This shows just how far, on this count at least, Mouffe goes in opposing the strictly liberal interpretation of democracy.

Thus, conflict is preserved at a double level on Mouffe’s view: at the level of the fight against oppression for the radical democrat citizen and at the level of the interpretation democratic citizenship. This reintegration of conflict and conflicting interpretations has further interesting consequences for her view of identity and subjectivity at a conceptual level:

“In this case, citizenship is not just one identity among others, as in liberalism, or the dominant identity that overrides all others, as in civic republicanism. It is an articulating principle that affects the different subject positions of the social agent (as I will show when I discuss the public/private distinction) while allowing for a plurality of specific allegiances and for the respect of individual liberty” (ibid., pp. 69-70).

“Such an approach can only be adequately formulated within a problematic that conceives of the social agent not as a unitary subject but as the articulation of an ensemble of subject positions, constructed within specific discourses and always precariously and temporarily sutured at the intersection of those subject positions” (ibid., pp. 71).

Accordingly, to the view of the singular, substantial individual in whom are united  a number of interlocking preferences and who exercises considerable control over the organization and fulfillment of those preferences in the private and public spheres of life, is substituted instead a collection of processes which arise from and are attached to a number of distinct, heterogeneous activities and practices and which have their basis not in the unified subject’s willing, but in their belonging to a common point of origin, to which they accrete in some sense. This view of an articulation of subject positions constructed from a variety of independent, language games brings to mind our earlier examination of Jean-François Lyotard’s outlining of subjectivity in La condition postmoderne. It should be remembered to what extent Mouffe’s thought is, of  her own avowal, indebted to the former. As the progenitor, of some sort, of radical democracy, Lyotard’s influence is to be seen everywhere within this theory as its logical extension, and, as for Lyotard, the unitary and unifying subject can be nought but a modern myth, for the radical democrat.

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