Democracy in need of emotion and confrontation

Interview with political scientist Chantal Mouffe

Are last summer’s worldwide street protestations a prelude to the end of democracy, or just a sign that civilians want to revitalize the political system? An interview with Chantal Mouffe, world-renowned political scientist.  

  • Gie Goris Political scientist Chantal Mouffe Gie Goris

It was never hotter in Vienna in the past decades, so we had to open the window in an old house in the Neubau-district in the Austrian capital. Street noises were thus resounding during our long conversation about power, choices and emotion in politics. Street protests in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt this summer were the very reason for this interview. But there were also demonstrations in European countries where reforms and budget cuts were announced to save the population from poverty. One of the recurring questions during these demonstrations is whether the people still feel represented by their democratically elected leaders. Are the worldwide street protestations a prelude to the end of democracy, or should they be interpreted as a sign that civilians want to revitalize the political system? MO* asked Chantal Mouffe, born in Charleroi, full professor in London and globally one of the most important academic voices in the debate on democracy.

Chantal Mouffe is not willing to engage in a conversation that starts off on the wrong foot. The protestations in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt have a very different nature. She would rather start with the Greek protest movement, with the Spanish indignados and with the Occupy- movement: these are for her the possible indications of a European democracy under threat. The strategy applied by the indignados and Occupy raises questions, especially their refusal to cooperate with parties, labour unions or other representative democratic institutions. According to Mouffe, this exit strategy from the institutions offers no answer to the democratic deficit, which she defines as a ‘shortage of real alternatives’. The traditional political parties all adopted the same economic model – the neoliberal consensus -, making it ever more difficult for citizens to believe that their vote can actually make a difference. Especially the lower classes have lost their political voice as socialist and social democrat parties shifted towards the centre. They migrated to the new extreme right, which took over the role of anti-establishment party and defender of the common people. ‘The only efficient way to counter right-wing populism, would be to offer a successful left-wing populism’ says Mouffe.

How would you define ‘populism’?

Chantal Mouffe: Populism is about finding a crowd around a political idea. The process of shaping a ‘we’, necessarily involves the creation of a ‘they’. Left and right wing populist parties are not different in applying this principle, but they use other concept to define ‘us’ and ‘them’. Whereas right wing parties base their concept of ‘the people’ very much on the exclusion of immigrants (notably from Islamic countries), left wing parties are mobilizing people against banks, financial sector representatives and neoliberal globalization institutions. The main challenge is to create the right synergies between social movements and political parties, because each of them alone is not capable to enable the necessary fundamental reform of the political system. The aim should be to restore the representative value of democracy, by introducing more transparency and accountability.

In Turkey, Brazil and Egypt, governments were elected with clear majorities and with clear programmes. And yet they too are confronted with massive protest movements.

Chantal Mouffe: In Turkey, despite of the profound contrasts in society, there is no real option to choose, because there is no credible opposition. Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP has easily won the past three parliamentary elections.

Brazil is a completely different story. The protestations there started with a legitimate demand for affordable public transport, a progressive demand. Dilma Roussef reacted positively to this demand, but very soon right wing opposition groups were joining the protestations. This led the Brazilian street protests to grow into large manifestations, aiming to bring down the government.

And it is clear that this government is not without mistakes. There have been serious problems with corruption; large-scale agro-industry has deprived many people of their farming incomes etc. The problem for Roussef is that her own party, the PT, never succeeded in obtaining a majority, forcing it to govern in coalition with other parties. If Roussef proposes to organize a referendum on certain reforms, she is being countered by her own government members or by parties of her majority. In this sense, the demonstrations could be a useful way to push the government policy and reforms in the direction of what the people want.

If elections bring an Islamic party to power, as they did in Egypt, Turkey or Tunisia, Western observers often refer to the nineteen thirties and to the experience of having totalitarian regimes elected. Do you share this concern?

Chantal Mouffe: Yes, but in fact we should not look back to the German experience, but to the Algerian case in the nineties. When the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was about to win the elections, they were cancelled in order to prevent Islamists to be in charge. As a consequence, a terrible and bloody civil war started, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. Is that the alternative? I fear that Egypt is moving in this direction, that al-Sisi aims to completely eliminate and destroy the Muslim Brothers. And the Muslim Brothers are of course not prepared to just give up on their electoral victory. In the meantime, more and more people died during the confrontations between both sides and the country seems to be sliding towards an Algerian scenario.

In your theory of a pluralist democracy with opposing political positions, you do emphasize that there should be at least some shared values. In particular, you refer to freedom and equality for all. How did you come to this conclusion?

Chantal Mouffe: I assume that these values are at the core of the democratic practice that we developed in Europe. But we need to realize that these values are constantly being interpreted in a different and sometimes conflicting way. Are these democratic values universal values? Perhaps, but they leave room for interpretation and different implementation. In Islamic cultures, for instance, the community prevails over the individual. Thus, there is a different relation between the freedom of the individual in a democracy and the interest of the community.

Could you add social cohesion as one of the basic conditions for a functioning democracy?

Chantal Mouffe: Indeed, but on a different level than the ethical-political conditions. Social cohesion is rather a sociological condition, not a value. In other words: if the gap between rich and poor becomes too big, democracy risks to be threatened.

‘Left parties used to advocate redistribution of wealth, now they emphasize the recognition of different identities. This shift has not been accepted by the lower classes. They righteously feel let down.’
Social cohesion does not only relate to class differences, but also to cultural differences. In the West, the equality of basic values is often interpreted in a social-cultural way: non-discrimination based on sexual preference, gender, origin etc.

Chantal Mouffe: The social democratic parties in Europe indeed shifted the battle for social-economic equality to identity-based equality. Left parties used to advocate redistribution of wealth, now emphasize the recognition of different identities. This shift has not been accepted by the lower classes. They righteously feel let down. I do not want to imply that these new forms of equality and recognition are not important, but they should not just replace social-economic equality.

Globalization led to increased competition at the bottom of society between low-skilled people and newcomers. This phenomenon is not understood by the middle class as a problem of inequality or as a lack of protection by the state, but as a problem of racism. Instead of solidarity, the low-skilled workers are faced with ethical criticisms. We replaced the political debate by the moralizations of the middle class. This ‘progressive’ attitude of course appeals to the middle class, including its immigrant representatives, but leaves the votes of the lower classes to parties like the Front National in France.

You claim that democracy is in need of emotion and confrontation, instead of rationality and consensus. And yet there are numerous examples that prove that emotional populist politics result in attempts to silencing and even eliminating opponents.

Chantal Mouffe: According to Spinoza, there are two main emotions: fear and hope. Right parties nearly always use fear to mobilize voters. I think that left parties gain voters on the basis of hope, sound projects for the future, alternatives to the establishment. Hope is rooted in justice, in equality. It seems to me that an emotional engagement for more justice is not at all problematic.

I am not advocating politics based on antagonism, but based on an own project, in full recognition of the legitimate claims of the political opponents. That is what I call ‘agonism’. After years of unbridgeable differences in Northern Ireland, they succeeded in transforming from a hostile, antagonist climate to a manageable, agonist conflict. The conflict did not disappear, but the different parties recognize each other’s institutions, rules and procedures, created to manage this conflict. Probably this would also be the best thinkable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The West-European consultation model may have removed emotion from politics, but it did bring prosperity and re-distribution of wealth.

Chantal Mouffe: The social democracy was an attempt to make the conflict between labour and capital ‘manageable’ or ‘agonist’. By the end of the sixties, however, capital owners estimated that the share of power and means they had to give in order to manage the underlying class conflict was too important. So they just ignored the consultation process and its institutions. Since Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, this neo-liberal tendency succeeded in gaining increasingly more influence on the economic and political policy and, ultimately, to the imagination of people. Ideas and convictions are a political construction: groups that want to come to power should ensure that the public opinion finds their programme just and legitimate.

The neo-liberal domination of the political and public imagination even survived the financial crash of 2008.

Chantal Mouffe: It is clear that in 2008, a tremendous opportunity was wasted. The explanation for this is that there no longer was an organized left wing. In many instances, left parties were part of the system that suddenly collapsed. In the United Kingdom, Labour and notably Gordon Brown had enabled the City’s financial cannibalism to grow in the proportion that it did. In France, privatizations were initiated under Lionel Jospin. You could hardly expect that the so-called left wing parties would have an alternative ready for a policy that they had set up and implemented. Right wing parties are now exploiting the available space the left was unable to take in 2008 to eliminate the final remains of the welfare state.

Has it not become difficult to express a left project in the West, considering that the promise to a better life with more consumption and less work is – for a number of reasons – no longer realistic? You cannot just ignore the climate change and the limits to production and consumption?

Chantal Mouffe: Sustainability as such is not a left theme; people who engage in a right societal project can also be worried about the borders of growth and the future of our planet. A left project for the future should comprise a mission to realize justice on an international level, and requires a cultural and moral revolution. We should realize that the current development model, driven by consumption, is not sustainable. Not only from an ecological point of view, but also socially. We have enjoyed a high standard of living because people at the other side of the Globe have produced our consumption goods in unacceptable conditions at unacceptable wages. The recent Bangladesh disaster reminded us of this. We constantly want everything at cheaper prices. Of course, this is impossible without increasing exploitation. Even left parties seem to be hesitant to discuss this theme and explain to the public that we need to lower our life standard if a sustainable and fair project for the future is what we want to realize.

Who is Chantal Mouffe?

Full Professor. Chantal Mouffe teaches political theory at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, London. Before that, she worked at important universities in the United States (Harvard, Cornell, Berkeley, Princeton) and in France (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Collège International de Philosophie).

Author. This summer, she published Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically (Verso Books). Other books: The Return of the Political (1993), The Democratic Paradox (2000) and On the Political (2005).

Key word. Democracy is in need of true choice options and of institutions that can convert power into policy. Not a consensus model, but a conflict model, enabling a manageable conflict between opponents (agonism) instead of an out-of-control and irreparable enmity (antagonism).

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