From Antagonistic Politics to an Agonistic Public Space: An Interview with Chantal Mouffe

Mouffe In Re-public:

In December 2008, Athens saw an eruption of violent protests that followed the murder of a teenager by a policeman. Initially reacting to police violence, the protestors did not articulate a specific agenda. The rallies, which mobilised a substantial part of the population – particularly the youth – dissipated a few weeks later. Similar outbreaks have taken place in other European cities in recent years (e.g. the Paris banlieues) and warrant a number of questions with regards to the capacity of our states and our cities to nurture a strong democratic life, acknowledging the role of conflict and preventing its violent expression.

Question: Do such events in their proportion and accumulated anger they carry illustrate the fact that liberal democracies actually fail to create room for dissent? In other words, could we argue that the emphasis on consensus has undermined the capacity of political actors to articulate dissent in ways that are necessary to democratic life?

Chantal Mouffe: In fact, I was thinking precisely of that at the moment when this was happening. This was a very good example of one of the arguments that I am making: that, if you don’t adopt an agonistic form of politics, if you don’t take the responsibility for different conflicts and struggles to take a political form of expression, then, when these conflicts erupt, they erupt in violent form. I was relating what took place in Athens on 2008 with the banlieues in France; it is a very similar phenomenon, in that there were no clear political demands. In order to understand the similarities between the two cases, it’s important to stress that, contrary to many interpretations, what happened in the banlieues was not an ethnic or religious conflict; this was a different phenomenon, a cleavage that concerned the youth. The conflict in this case erupted in a very violent manner but it did not articulate specific demands. And that of course was difficult for people to come to terms with, because they wondered: “What do they want? What do they ask for?”. This is similar to what happened in the Greek case: of course in the case of Greece there was no misunderstanding about ethnicity or religion, but I think the two phenomena have a lot in common. This is clearly the expression of a crisis of representation in politics due to the political move toward the centre; particularly by the socialists and the social-democratic parties, who seem to identify with a certain kind of middle class and leave many segments of the population, like traditional workers and the youth, without a discourse within which to address their demands. There is no political form of expression for those demands; so when the conflict erupts, it erupts in an antagonistic way and not in an agonistic way.