Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mouffe: Agonistic Pluralism and Religion

Just started reading Jeffrey Robbins' Radical Democracy and Political Theology, which led me to reconsider the work of Chantal Mouffe (who is famous for co-writing a book with Ernesto Laclau). Why I like what I have found in Mouffe is her reading of pragmatism and Wittgenstein (I am starting to see the wisdom of the words Negri once said about how everything has changed since Wittgenstein, which has led to my growing issues with Badiou). Reading Jeffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition over the summer, Stout's interaction with the pragmatist Richard Rorty (and even Rorty's latter openness to public, religious expressions) and finally, Stout's utilization of key, underdeveloped ideas about the secular from Barth's theology made me look out for pragmatic ideas about democracy. Thus, my antennas went up on Robbins' section on Schmitt and Mouffe.

Mouffe's idea of Agonistic pluralism is framed by the reality of the "us vs them" format made famous by Carl Schmitt (her view of pluralism also has roots from Nietzsche and Weber). What Mouffe attempts to do is articulate a politics that forms a "we", which brings together this multiplicity of conflicts, diversity and antagonism. In short, society is never going to be free of "adversaries" (not Schmitt's "enemies") but the pluralistic, democratic space must find ways to be tolerant of such diverse positions. By framing the argument as "adversaries" and not the moral term "enemies", Mouffe acknowledges the contingency of her own beliefs but also the commitment to fight for her beliefs without making it a moral issue. So her presupposition is her view of pluralism that entails the antagonistic nature of different values. She declares that "the real issue at stake in democratic politics is how to establish the us/them distinction in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy." In order for this theory to work, there needs to be consensus on the basis of this system of conflict ( a symbolic "common ground"). She points out that any movement or figures that won't work with this consensus thus ultimately places themselves or herself in the category of the "enemy". Probably the most adequate or legitimate place to bring a sense of unity is some type of constitutional document. In essence she is working with both sides of western democracy: its liberalism (rule of law, separation of church/state and powers, individual rights, popular sovereignty) and its democracy (populism, pluralism).

One of the key subjects that people feel passion/emotion for is religious issues. However, one of the cornerstones for liberal democracy is the separation of church and state. Mouffe reads this idea differently in stating that the separation of church and state really means the separation between religion and "state power." I think this is probably the best analysis I have read on this subject and I think it fits with a Barthian view. She has this great quote: "It is the tendency to identify politics with the state and the state with the public that has led to the mistaken idea that the separation between the church and the state means the absolute relegation of religion to the private." She notes that this view cannot be defended. Passions (including religious) cannot be removed from politics. However, there is a post-Nazi fear of the passions because in the liberal-democratic mind it leads to "irrational" decisions by the mob or as Toscano calls "fanaticism".

Oftentimes religious expression spills into the ideas of public policies and shapes reactions to them as well. There is no such thing as the liberal neutral view that manages to keep "divisive issues" out of the public realm. It is better to acknowledge the tensions that are in society and work to deal with them in a way that is tolerant to all segments of society. This is a tolerance that is shaped by an idea that there will never be a final, complete reconciliation of conflicts. She writes that "the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions or to relegate them to the private sphere in order to establish a rational consensus in the public sphere. It is, rather, to attempt to mobilize those passions toward democratic designs." In summary, diversity is to be praised in whatever format it is expressed as long as it recognizes the right of the difference of the other or the adversary.

1 comment:

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes