McKenzie Wark on Chantal Mouffe and Liberal Democracy – Frontpage

For Public Seminar, McKenzie Wark writes about political theory and Chantal Mouffe’s “demos” and Mouffe’s growing relevance in light of Brexit and Trump’s neofascist hubbub. Read part of Wark below, in its entirety via the Public Seminar.

Looking at the American presidential primaries and now the “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom on leaving the European Union, I am struck by the relevance of Chantal Mouffe’s political theory in both situations. In the United States and the United Kingdom, there was a debate as to whether liberal democracy would be liberal or “democratic.” And if it’s to be democratic, it was a contest to find out what kind of demos – from people – this was supposedly about democracy. At least that’s what it seemed to me, given that I was reading Chantal Mouffe at the time. His two most recent books Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (Verso, 2013) and The Democratic Paradox (Verso, 2005) offer a useful, though perhaps limited, perspective.

With Brexit, the “liberal” position had to remain; the “democrat” had to go. Oddly enough, Labor and Conservatives must have given a version of the liberal position. David Cameron has been more convincing on this point than Jeremy Corbyn, who has many more reservations about the benefits of the EU for work. The “democratic” position has been defended by conservative Eurosceptics and the quasi-fascist UKIP. By democratic I mean an appeal to a people portrayed as having a strong sense of identity that excludes others. Of course, this call was cynical and a way to get votes for a version of a return to British “sovereignty” which, in the hands of the Conservatives, would mean a further assault on workers’ rights, protection. consumers, etc.

Interestingly, the two main parties are in crisis. Cameron has been astute enough to step down and let his skeptical party opponents determine if a Brexit is even possible. The Blairite “liberal” faction of the Labor Party has seized the opportunity to overthrow Corbyn, who advocates a democratic turn within the party, but to the left. Corbyn finds himself with the difficult task of finding an emotional – and effective – democratic language that is anti-racist but speaks for a people against their enemies. Its enemies in this case being a transnational ruling class.

Meanwhile, in the United States, two versions of the liberal in liberal democracy were represented by the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. The former was able to reject a version of democracy, the latter was not. It may seem tendentious to regard both Bush and Clinton as “liberals” and even more so to treat their challengers, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as “Democrats,” but there is a specific meaning of the two terms in which this makes sense. .

Liberal has here more its classic meaning than American. Both Clinton and Bush stood for the rule of law, private property, limited government (with some concessions to certain interest groups, of course), and a rather abstract idea of ​​what it means to be an American citizen. Democracy also has a very special meaning. Sanders and Trump both point to a rather stronger sense of what it means to be included as a citizen in protests, and a corresponding sense of exclusion. For Sanders, what is excluded is “Wall Street”, for Trump, what is excluded is the foreigner.

These are very different versions of the demos. One is close to being class based while the other is nationalist and chauvinist. Interestingly, the two combined a strong sense of who demos are against with a strong sense of what demos can share. At least in the first part of his campaign, Trump was careful to support existing social and health benefits for those who, in narrow and racist terms, are seen as deserving members of the protests. Sanders, on the other hand, pointed to free higher education. In very different ways, these democratic challengers have appealed to a stronger sense of participation in protests. Citizenship is not just an abstract category, but a felt sense of belonging and sharing.

American policy is perhaps not so exceptional here. Many political regimes are experiencing something similar. The dominant parties of center-right and center-left complexion find themselves challenged by the left and the right, sometimes by a more clearly socialist left and a right which is in direct and obvious continuity with the fascist formations of the past. This version of liberalism often referred to as neoliberalism finds itself under pressure from its former rivals, both of which can in turn be seen as competing versions of a democratic challenge. In some cases, as in Greece, the democratic force of the left has prevailed; in others, such as Poland or Hungary, the democratic force of the right has prevailed. In Austria, the presidential election ended up being a hotly contested affair between the environmental candidate and a far-right neo-fascist.

Two different types of stress could separate liberal democracy. One is austerity. A regime stripped of at least regulatory functionality in favor of financial plunder provokes backlash against the liberal side of liberal democracy to which class and nation versions of democracy may appear as an alternative. In Greece, for once, it favored the demonstrations of the left, although once Syriza was elected, it turned out that there was not much they could do – or were ready to do. – about austerity.

The other stress is the global refugee crisis. It now seems reasonable to say that climate change is adding to the usual series of geopolitical shenanigans leading to destabilization on the fringes of the imperial system. Aridity is spreading in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Millions of people are on the move. Both in the states of the European Union and in Australia, the right-wing versions of the protests as a shared national affiliation are extremely popular. Both center-left and center-right parties find themselves forced to accommodate these right-wing protests into otherwise liberal versions of politics, more concerned with turning the wheels of commerce.

*Image by Chantal Mouffe via

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