The Books Interview: Chantal Mouffe

You argue that politicians should seek to create a "vibrant 'agonistic' public sphere". What do you mean by that?
What I have in mind is not simply a space for the expression of any kind of disagreement, but a confrontation between conflicting notions about how to organise society. This does not exist in Britain at the moment, because no political party clearly challenges the hegemony of neoliberalism. There are, of course, disagreements about a variety of issues, but what is lacking is a debate about possible alternatives to the current neoliberal model of globalisation. We have been told by advocates of New Labour that politics now takes place at the centre and that the categories of right and left have become obsolete.

Did the BBC contribute towards the creation of such a public sphere by putting the BNP's Nick Griffin on Question Time?
In such a situation, which I designate as "post-political", an agonistic debate cannot exist, and it is not by inviting Nick Griffin on Question Time that things are going to change. That does not mean that he should not have been invited. Indeed, if the BNP is allowed to present candidates at elections, there is no reason to ban its representatives from taking part in public debates. To criticise the BBC for inviting him is typical of themoralistic attitude that has replaced the political confrontation between left and right. Instead of trumpeting their moral condemnation, Labour politicians should be inspired to examine why some of their supporters are being attracted by the BNP. But moral indignation is easier and more self-gratifying than auto-critique.

What concrete changes in British politics would get us closer to your ideal of agonistic democracy?
My agonistic model of democracy acknowledges the existence in social life of antagonistic conflicts, conflicts that concern the configuration of power relations and the way society should be organised. Those conflicts cannot be solved by deliberation, and they will never be eliminated. The aim of a pluralist democracy is to provide the institutions that will allow them to take an agonistic form, in which opponents will treat each other not as enemies to be destroyed, but as adversaries who will fight for the victory of their position while recognising the right of their opponents to fight for theirs. An agonistic democracy requires the availability of a choice between real alternatives and that is precisely what is missing in Britain today. What would be needed to foster an agonistic democracy is a significant break from Third Way politics by Labour or the development of
a new party with a clear left identity, like Die Linke in Germany.

You talk about a "post-political" era. What do you mean by this?
When I speak of the post-political, I am not agreeing with Third Way theorists on the need to think "beyond left and right" and the demise of the adversarial model of politics. We have no doubt been witnessing a blurring of the frontiers between left and right in recent decades, but this is not something that I celebrate. In my view, such a post-political situation represents a danger for democracy. I have tried in my recent work to show that our inability to envisage the problems with which we are confronted in a properly political way is the origin of a widespread disaffection with democratic institutions. This is a disaffection that, in several European countries, has led to the growing success of right-wing populist parties.

How has the global economic crisis influenced your thinking?
There was a moment at the beginning of the financial crisis when it seemed that the hegemony of neoliberalism had received a serious blow. After decades of being demonised, the state was suddenly called to the rescue. However, instead of implementing redistributive policies, the intervention of the state has been limited to rescuing the banks. There is, though, a positive aspect. I think there is an increasing awareness that the current model of development is unsustainable.

Interview by Nina Power.

Chantal Mouffe's "The Democratic Paradox" is published in Verso's Radical Thinkers series (£6). The fourth set of the series will be launched at an event supported by the NS on 26 November at Tate Britain, London SW1


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains