Radical Plural Democracy. A New Theory for the Left? par Susan Hekman

Publié pour une première fois dans Negations, Winter 1996. Reproduit ici avec la permission des éditeurs de Negations. [ http://www.datawranglers.com/negations/index.html ]

Radical Plural Democracy : A New Theory For the Left?

Susan Hekman

Dr. Hekman’s article shows the current state of Marxism in relation to Postmodernism and highlights the need to re-think the left.

To say that marxism is in crisis in the last decade of the twentieth century is an understatement. In both theory and practice marxism has been buffeted from all sides since mid-century. The demise of marxist-identified political regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe focused world attention on the political, social and economic failures of these governments. Although marxist intellectuals could, and, indeed, did, vigorously protest that these regimes did not represent the political expression of marxist principles, their nominal association with marxism discredited it in the eyes of the world. Fukuyama’s (1992) claim that the demise of marxism and the triumph of liberal democracy heralds the « end of history » represents an extreme interpretation of this set of events. But it voices a sentiment that is widespread in the 90’s: that liberal democracy has proven its superiority over its long-time rival.

On the intellectual scene marxism has been similarly discredited. Marxist theory has been unable to accommodate three significant intellectual movements in the last decades of the twentieth century: postmodernism / poststructuralism, theoretical articulations of the « new social movements » such as feminism, ecology and identity politics, and a revitalized theory of liberal democracy. The postmodern/poststructuralist attack on metanarratives, totalizing theories that purport to explain the whole of social reality, is equally applicable to marxism and traditional liberalism. But this critique has been focused on the left because many postmodern/poststructuralist theorists are former marxists; liberalism is rarely deemed worthy of their attention. The upshot of the critique, thus, has not been so much to question the viability of any foundationalist politics, but, rather, specifically to problematize marxist/leftist politics.

The rise of « new social movements » has dealt an equally crippling blow. Feminists, ecologists, proponents of identity politics rooted in race, ethnicity, or sexuality have failed to find a theoretical home in marxism; they have instead articulated an independent theoretical position. The rise of these movements and their apparent incompatibility with marxism has revealed an important lacuna in marxist theory. Despite its sensitivity to the role of social and material conditions in constructing social reality, traditional marxism is silent on an issue that dominates contemporary theory: the cultural construction of race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Traditional marxist theory focuses on a single factor: material/economic conditions. It is the clash of classes defined by the ownership of the means of production that drives marxist theory; there is no room for differences of gender, class, race and ethnicity. This has created a peculiar dilemma for contemporary marxists. The new social movements identify themselves as oppositional, resistance movements; they thus fall under the traditional purview of the left. Yet marxist theory cannot accommodate these movements without violating its basic tenets. The most that can be accomplished is an uneasy theoretical and practical accommodation.

The third factor that has discredited contemporary marxism is the rebirth of liberal democratic theory and practice. Marx’s disdain for bourgeois liberalism characterizes twentieth century marxist theory as well. Like their predecessors, twentieth century marxists have assumed that liberalism is not worthy of their attention because it is a passing phenomenon; it will wither away with the inevitable demise of capitalism. The current revitalization of liberal democratic theory has thus proved to be something of an embarrassment. Far from withering on the theoretical or political vine, liberal democracy has proved to be a dynamic force on the contemporary intellectual scene.

The dilemma facing contemporary marxism thus, is daunting. It is tempting to argue that leftist intellectuals should simply abandon marxism and move on to a more promising theoretical location. This is an unattractive option for a number of reasons. First, the left has too much invested in marxism to abandon it entirely. Although the theme of liberation is not unique to marxism, its articulation in marxism has proved to be particularly powerful. marxism’s call for liberation has ignited the political passions of millions across the world and inspired oppositional intellectuals for over a century. No other resistance movement in modern history has exhibited such strength; it is a powerful resource for leftist theory and politics. Second, despite their departure from marxist principles, contemporary oppositional movements such as feminism and identity politics grew out of marxist politics and are fueled by a marxist-inspired concept of liberation. Many of their proponents are disaffected marxists who have strayed from the fold. Third, no obvious alternative to marxism is emerging on the political left. Postmodernism is frequently accused of being a-political, even nihilistic. At the very least, the movement has no obvious political agenda. The new social movements, although overtly political, fail to offer a comprehensive political theory; they focus on the aspect of political life that defines their movement without developing a general social/political position. In the 60’s and 70’s it appeared that the second generation critical theory of Jurgen Habermas would fill the gap in leftist theory. But this promise has not been realized. Habermas’s work has become too closely identified with analytic philosophy, an approach with decidedly conservative implications. His increasingly arcane theories have failed to inspire a revitalized leftist politics.

In the last decade, however, a new and potentially significant theory has appeared on the left intellectual scene: radical plural democracy. (1) It appears to have exactly what the contemporary left needs: it incorporates many of the insights of postmodern and poststructuralist approaches; it offers a theoretical explanation of the new social movements; it even embraces some of the contributions of recent theories of liberal democracy. Significantly, it defines this effort as a continuation of the marxist heritage and, specifically, its liberatory theme. The purpose of this essay is to assess this new theory of the left. By tracing the evolution of the approach, I will question whether it represents a viable theoretical and political direction for leftist politics.

« Left-wing thought today stands at a crossroads. The ‘evident truths’ of the past…have been seriously challenged by an avalanche of historical mutations which have riven the ground on which those truths were constituted. » This is the opening sentence of the first comprehensive statement of radical plural democracy: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). (2) In the first few pages of the book they explain why they see marxist theory to be at a crossroads. In recent years, they claim, « positive new phenomena » have emerged that demand theoretical reconsideration: new feminism, protest movements of ethnic, national and sexual minorities, the ecology movement. These phenomena, they assert, cannot be dealt with in the context of the presuppositions that frame marxist theory: universal subjects and a singular definition of history. The basic presuppositions that frame radical plural democracy are prefigured in this initial statement. The most fundamental is that the left is in crisis; marxism as usual cannot continue. Another is the recognition of the significance of the new social movements that have arisen in recent decades. Radical plural democracy recognizes that unless the left can accommodate these movements it will lose what little viability it still possesses. Finally, radical plural democracy assumes a central tenet of postmodernism: the death of the modernist subject. The authors tacitly acknowledge the centrality of this subject to marxist theory and accept that it is no longer a viable basis for theorizing.

A fundamental tension characterizes the argument of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. On one hand Laclau and Mouffe remain tied to the theoretical discourse of marxism. Over half of the book consists of an extended analysis, which, following Foucault, they call a genealogy, of the concept of hegemony in marxist theory. They offer detailed discussions of the thought of Luxembourg, Kautsky, Bernstein, Sorel and Gramsci. They define their goal as « operating deconstructively within marxist categories. » To accomplish this they employ the discourses of classical marxism, abandoning some elements of those discourses, transforming others, with the aim of recovering what they define as the plurality of early marxism. But this effort is uneasily balanced with a second tendency: the movement into « post-marxist terrain. » Laclau and Mouffe claim that although hegemony is a marxist concept, it introduces a logic of the social that is incompatible with marxist categories. They thus conclude that it is necessary to move beyond marxism, that marxism is only one of the traditions through which it is possible to formulate the new conception of politics that they are seeking -a « radical, libertarian and plural democracy » (Laclau and Mouffe, 3-4).

The tension between these two tendencies in their first book sets the stage for the theoretical and practical difficulties the approach will encounter as it develops. The second tendency has come to dominate the emerging theory. The second half of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy establishes the two central themes of radical plural democracy. The first is the adoption of the principal elements of postmodernism: the critique of metanarratives and the rejection of the transcendental subject. The authors define hegemony as a relational category, even suggesting that it is a transitional concept that marks the end of essentialist discourse. The concept of hegemony, they claim, reveals the « unfixity » of social relations: there are no privileged points, no fixed subject positions (87-8). « Subject positions » replaces « the subject » in their discussions. These subject positions, furthermore, are defined as discursive, partaking of the open character of all discourse (115). This move takes the authors beyond the traditional terrain of marxism. It entails that there is no repression per se, but only repression as it is defined in a discursive relation (154). It also entails « that the definition of the workers’ struggle » need not be opposed to that of women and ethnic minorities (167). Once the notion of a universal working class is abandoned, this opposition disappears. Significantly, the notion of a privileged standpoint also disappears. On the author’s reading no one has a prerogative on truth; there are only discourses that articulate resistance.

Perhaps the most startling move in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, however, is the second theme presented in the latter half of the book: the incorporation of liberal democratic theory. After a discussion of Hayek, Nozick and Brzezinski, the authors argue: « It would be an error to underestimate the importance of these attempts to redefine notions such as ‘liberty,’ ‘equality,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘democracy.' » The « traditional dogmatism of the Left, » they assert, results in a narrow range of vision. The left has ignored problems at the center of political philosophy as well as « the whole vast field of culture and the definition of reality built on the basis of it. » Worse, these fields have been « left free for the initiative of the right » (174). To counter these tendencies Laclau and Mouffe urge the left not to reject liberal democracy, but to « deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy » (176). They even go so far as to assert that the ethical principle of the liberty of the individual is particularly valid today (184).

The definition of radical plural democracy that Laclau and Mouffe advance in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy can be seen as a kind of challenge to the left. It outlines a way to incorporate both postmodernism and liberal democracy into a leftist, quasi-marxist politics. One of the principal goals of this politics is to accommodate the new social movements that marxism had previously excluded. But even at this early stage the potential problems inherent in their enterprise are evident. Laclau and Mouffe reject several of the central tenets of marxism while nonetheless claiming a marxist inspiration. The privileged standpoint of the proletariat, determination by material conditions, and the centrality of class conflict are all jettisoned. They further incorporate a concept that has been the object of marxist critique since its inception: the liberal notion of individual rights. Finally, they embrace a position, postmodernism, that denies the legitimacy of both the marxist and liberal projects. Laclau and Mouffe are aware of these tensions from the outset and seek to resolve them in subsequent work. But whether such a resolution is even possible is surely in question.

In the years following the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe have expanded the outline of radical plural democracy they advanced in the book, defending it against its critics on the left. Their defensive strategy follows a clear pattern: a movement away from a marxist modernism and toward a postmodern eclecticism that embraces liberal political philosophy. Thus in Andrew Ross’s Universal Abandon? Mouffe declares that radical plural democracy proposes a reformulation of the socialist project that avoids the twin pitfalls of marxist socialism and social democracy, while providing the left with a new imaginary, an imaginary that speaks to the tradition of the great emancipatory struggles but that also takes into account recent theoretical contributions by psychoanalysis and philosophy. In effect, such a project could be defined as being both modern and postmodern. (32-3)

The development of radical plural democracy follows the two themes introduced in the second half of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Mouffe declares that only postmodernism can allow us to understand the complexity of contemporary social movements, particularly the multiplicity of subjects (34). She focuses on one of the central themes of postmodernism, the redefinition of the subject, and ties her discussion to a pervasive topic of contemporary social theory: difference. Radical plural democracy, Mouffe declares, demands the recognition of difference, particularly the recognition of different subject positions (35-6). (3) Laclau takes the accommodation with postmodernism even further. In his essay in Ross’s book he asserts that the genealogy of marxism coincides with the postmodern deconstruction of the myth of origins. Abandoning this myth, he claims, leads not to nihilism but to a proliferation of discursive interventions (76-9).

Mouffe also significantly expands the second theme: the incorporation of liberal democracy. The task of radical democracy, she claims, is to deepen the democratic project of modernity without incorporating the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment (1988:44). Although Laclau and Mouffe had advanced this theme in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Mouffe now develops it significantly, moving more firmly into liberal terrain. She argues that socialist goals can only be achieved within a liberal democratic framework and that a strong alliance with the ethico-political principles of modern democracy is necessary to promote the project of radical and plural democracy (« Radical Democracy or Liberal Democracy« , 57-61). Taking an even more daring step, she asserts that radical democracy’s emphasis on tradition, particularity, and difference converges with some aspects of conservative thinking (« Radical Democracy: modern or postmodern« , 38). She introduces the Aristotelian concept of « phronesis » to buttress her thesis. For Aristotle phronesis is ethical knowledge that is dependent on cultural and historical conditions current in the community, practical reason specific to the study of human praxis (Ibid., 36).

Given the radical implications of Laclau and Mouffe’s position, it is curious that there has been a relatively mild reaction on the left to radical plural democracy. This in itself is indicative. Few on the left are willing to defend traditional marxism at this juncture and, specifically, to claim legitimacy for the privileged standpoint that Laclau and Mouffe are abandoning. It is also indicative that the critiques that have appeared attack radical plural democracy from opposite theoretical directions. On one hand, for example, Aronowitz claims that radical plural democracy is not truly antifoundational but must necessarily presuppose an ethical a priori (« Postmodernism… », 52). And, from an opposite perspective, Bove, discussing a position that also abandons the totality of marxism, claims that this move leads to « a typical and dangerous form of American pluralism » (18).

Laclau and Mouffe define radical plural democracy as marxism by « other means, » which, for them, include postmodernism, the new social movements, and a version of liberal democracy. In many ways the definition of radical plural democracy parallels another theoretical movement in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s: the articulation of a « postmodern politics. » A debate has raged in a variety of academic disciplines over whether it is even possible to define a postmodern politics. Many critics of postmodernism claim that the term is an oxymoron because postmodernism is at best nihilistic and a-political and, at worst, entails political conservatism. Despite, or perhaps because of these criticisms, advocates of postmodernism have attempted to define a postmodern politics of resistance. And what better way to do so than to argue for a link between postmodernism and marxism? Michael Ryan makes just such a case in Marxism and Deconstruction. here are many similarities between Ryan’s project and that of Laclau and Mouffe. Ryan defines the aim of his book as developing a new form of analysis that is both marxist and deconstructionist (Marxism, xv). He argues that deconstructive philosophy has positive implications for marxism both theoretically and politically: it jettisons the metaphysical elements of marxism and it provides a theoretical basis for antimetaphysical tendencies in marxism (Ibid., 1). Like Laclau and Mouffe, Ryan wants to develop a politics that can accommodate the new social movements, what he calls « the Left’s Right » (Ibid., 215). And, also like them, he turns to postmodernism to define this politics. Ryan parts company with Laclau and Mouffe, however, on the issue of liberalism. In Marxism and Deconstruction he argues strenuously against the « liberal implications » of Derrida’s philosophy, citing the « danger » of a conservative or even reactionary interpretation of deconstruction (Ibid, 193). In a later book, Politics and Culture, he elaborates this theme by claiming that deconstruction is not compatible with liberalism, but, rather, reveals its internal contradictions.

There is, at this point, a huge literature on « postmodern politics. » (4) I cite Ryan’s work in this context because he identifies his postmodern politics as marxist. Others, most notably Richard Rorty, ground their postmodern politics in liberalism. Despite some affinities, however, postmodern politics and radical plural democracy are not identical. The political implications of postmodernism are not, Ryan’s arguments notwithstanding, necessarily leftist. Although elements of postmodernism can be used to formulate a left politics, it does not entail such a politics. Radical plural democracy, on the other hand, is leftist/marxist first and postmodern only secondarily. This is an important distinction. Postmodernism can provide tools and insights for the construction of a left politics, but it cannot supply the foundation for that politics. In the introduction to his edited book on postmodern politics, aptly titled Universal Abandon?, Andrew Ross puts this very well. Postmodern politics, he asserts, has different origins than those that produce leftist politics; it produces a politics of difference that liberates voices of color, gender and sexual orientation from the margins (Ross, xvi). (5)  Such a politics has no necessary direction or orientation; it is just as undefined as postmodernism itself.

In 1992 Chantal Mouffe edited Dimensions of Radical Democracy. The essays in this volume expand and to a certain extent redefine the theory of radical plural democracy that she and Laclau advanced seven years earlier. The volume is prefaced by a statement of editorial policy for a new series of books edited by Laclau and Mouffe under the title Phronesis. This statement is the most concise definition of radical plural democracy as the authors conceive it today:

There is today wide agreement that the left-wing project is in crisis. New antagonisms have emerged ­­not only in advanced capitalist societies but also in the Eastern bloc and in the Third World­­ that require the reformulation of the socialist ideal in terms of an extension and deepening of democracy.

They then go on to describe two possible solutions to this crisis: a return to rationalism and universalism or a rejection of essentialism. After identifying the second option as « a point of convergence of the most important trends in contemporary theory » they conclude:

Phronesis clearly locates itself among the latter. We believe that an anti-essentialist theoretical stand is the sin qua non of a new vision for the Left conceived in terms of a radical and plural democracy.

Notice what has happened to the definition of radical plural democracy in the years since 1985. References to marxism have been entirely deleted; postmodernism is linked to the new social movements with the argument that it offers the only possible explanation of these phenomena; and democracy is appropriated without reference to its association with liberalism. Mouffe’s two articles in the volume expand on these themes. In « Democratic Politics Today » she makes the sweeping statement that those who refuse to see liberal democratic capitalism as the end of history have only one option: radical democracy. The problem, she declares, is not defining the ideals of democracy, but realizing them. Radical and plural democracy forces liberal democratic societies to be accountable to their ideals. Mouffe’s goal is to separate liberal democracy from capitalism and liberal individualism. The key question, she asserts, is how a maximum of pluralism can be preserved without destroying community (Mouffe, « Democratic Politics… », 1-3).

For Mouffe the solution to this theoretical challenge lies in a redefinition of citizenship. She discusses the concept of citizenship under five headings: radical democracy, community, social justice, identity, and pluralism. Throughout, her aim is to distinguish radical plural democracy from traditional liberalism, the contemporary communitarians, and earlier forms of pluralism (Ibid., 4-12). But there is a lacuna in Mouffe’s presentation that problematizes the position that she is now adopting: the alternative she is proposing is ill-defined, particularly in political terms. Radical plural democracy, she declares, postulates the impossibility of a final realization of democracy because of the irresolvable tension between equality and liberty. For Mouffe modern democratic political community is « a discursive surface of inscriptions. » Thus « the experience of a radical and plural democracy can only consist in the recognition of the multiplicity of social logics » (Ibid., 14). Further explanation of the parameters of this politics, however, is not forthcoming.

Mouffe’s conclusion to the volume, « Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community, » seeks to articulate a new definition of citizenship that is appropriate to radical plural democracy. She situates her argument in the context of the liberalism/communitarianism debate, asserting that we should combine the best aspects of each position. Several themes dominate her discussion. The first is a recognition of moral pluralism, multiple definitions of  » the good » within political life. The second is a postmodern definition of subjectivity. The subject, she declares, is « the articulation of an ensemble of subject positions, constructed within specific discourses and always precariously sutured at the intersection of those subject positions » (« Democratic Citizenship… », 237). The common political identity that Mouffe is striving for, thus, is « a collective identification with a radical democratic interpretation of the principles of the liberal-democratic regime: liberty and equality » (Ibid., 236)

That Mouffe’s position in 1992 represents a significant move away from traditional left/marxist politics and toward traditional liberalism should be evident from the summary of these articles. The other contributors to the volume provide further evidence of radical plural democracy’s move toward liberalism. None are marxists or even quasi-marxists; several discuss the liberal concept of pluralism at length; and two, Walzer and Wolin, are well-known anti-marxist left liberals. Although each of the authors tries to distinguish her or his position from traditional liberalism, these distinctions are largely unsuccessful. Walzer, for example, wants to replace liberal individualism with « critical associationalism » (105). McClure wants to define a « post-marxist pluralism » that supersedes liberal pluralism. D’Entreves casts the radical plural democratic net even further by arguing for the inclusion of Hannah Arendt’s concept of citizenship. And Sheldon Wolin, in the concluding essay of the volume, appropriately titled « What Revolutionary Action Means Today, » summarizes this move to the right by arguing that « Democrats need a new conception of revolution. Its text should be John Locke, not Karl Marx » (249).

In her 1993 collection, The Return of the Political, Mouffe moves even further into liberal terrain. Although there is little that is new in this volume ­­all but one of the papers was previously published or delivered­­ it documents Mouffe’s increasing interest in liberal political theory. Several essays in the volume delve into the intricacies of contemporary liberal debates; Rawls, Larmore, Galston, Raz and others are discussed at length. Although Mouffe also argues that socialism can be « useful » in the contemporary attempt to refashion democratic theory and includes a discussion of Bobbio’s work, her emphasis has shifted even more decisively toward liberalism and away from socialism. Mouffe’s commentary on the liberalism debate is organized around her theme of pluralism. She asserts that many contemporary liberals advocate a position that fosters homogeneity and denies plurality. Against this she repeatedly argues that although we must create wide consensus around democratic values, the means to accomplish this goal is multiplying discourses and practices « that produce ‘democratic subject positions' » (The Return of the Political, 151).

As this passage indicates, although Mouffe may be abandoning socialism, she is not abandoning postmodernism. Mouffe’s restructuring of liberalism has a decidedly postmodern ring. Her thesis is that the liberal tradition is diverse and complex; it is linked to Enlightenment rationalism, economic liberalism, and political liberalism as well as philosophical discourses on man, rationality and morality (Ibid., 42). Mouffe wants to discard all the elements of this heritage that are linked to modernism, to define a liberalism that is not universalist, rationalist or individualist. The liberalism she advocates is, instead, one in which rationality, individuality and universality are not rejected, but defined as plural, discursively constituted, and entangled with power relations (Ibid., 7). The focus of her restructuring is, once again, the subject. She strives to define a « non-individualistic conception of the individual » (Ibid., 100), an individual conceived as « the intersection of a multiplicity of identifications and collective identities that constantly subvert each other » (Ibid., 97).

It is tempting to conclude from this that, after first fashioning a marxism that violates the epistemological assumptions of marx, Mouffe is now articulating a liberalism that would be anathema to most liberals and, furthermore, verges on incoherence. What, exactly, are we to make of a « non- individualistic conception of the individual, » not to mention a « plural » definition of universality? Not only are these conceptions confused, but it is hard to imagine a liberalism that can accommodate them. It is even harder to imagine a liberalism that can accommodate a conception of the subject as a multiplicity of intersecting identities.

Mouffe’s movement into liberal terrain is motivated by her desire to bring all the major contemporary theoretical and political movements under her theoretical umbrella. But in attempting to assess the success of radical plural democracy it is necessary to ask whether her strategy of inclusion works in all cases. The confusing and contradictory nature of her refashioning of liberalism suggests that it is unsuccessful in this instance. But I would nevertheless like to argue that the strategy does work in the case of postmodernism. Several contemporary theorists, most notably Coward and Ellis, have suggested that Marx’s concept of the subject as socially determined lays the theoretical groundwork for the discursively constituted postmodern subject. Thus, although Marx is in many ways a thoroughly modernist thinker, there are nevertheless elements of his theory that prefigure postmodernism, particularly the postmodern concept of the subject. Another way of putting this is that Marx opens up what Althusser has called a « new continent of thought » without fully entering that continent. That this compatibility with postmodernism is not true of liberalism should be evident. Liberalism is thoroughly and, I would argue, irredeemably modernist. Specifically, it is antithetical to the kind of postmodern redefinition that Mouffe is attempting. Without the modernist concept of the subject and its universal principles, liberalism makes little sense.

What I am arguing, then, is that while the marriage of a marxist politics of resistance and a postmodern emphasis on difference offers fruitful possibilities for a left politics, the incorporation of liberalism into this theoretical mix does not. This thesis can best be illustrated by examining radical plural democracy’s reception among the adherents of one of the new social movements it seeks to incorporate: feminism. In Politics and Culture Ryan devotes a chapter to « the Politics of Deconstruction: Feminism », arguing for a convergence between the two approaches. But although there has been an extensive discussion in the feminist community about the relevance of postmodernism for feminism, there have been few discussions of radical plural democracy. Mouffe has attempted to bring radical plural democracy and feminism together through her concept of citizenship:

I believe that what a project of radical and plural democracy needs is not a sexually differentiated model of citizenship in which the specific tasks of both men and women would be equally valued, but a truly different conception of what it is to be a citizen and to act as a member of a democratic political community. (« Feminism… », 377)

The concept of difference has dominated discussions in feminist theory in recent years. The central question in this controversy is whether feminists should emphasize or downplay both the differences between women and men and those between different groups of women. Mouffe brings the anti-essentialism of radical plural democracy to bear on this question by asserting that abandoning an essentialist concept of woman, far from being an obstacle to the formation of a feminist democratic project, is instead the condition of its possibility. She argues that many different kinds of identification can form around the concept « woman » that can provide the basis for a feminist politics (Ibid., 381-2).

In Justice and the Politics of Difference Iris Marion Young outlines a feminist politics that has much affinity to radical plural democracy. Young defines justice as the institutionalized conditions that make it possible for all to learn and use satisfying skills in socially recognized settings, to participate in decision making and express their feelings and perspectives on social life in contexts where others can listen (91). Young rejects the definition of justice as the transcendence of group differences. Instead she argues that the politics of difference requires that participation and inclusion for all groups sometimes entails different treatment for oppressed or disadvantaged groups (158). Like the adherents of radical plural democracy Young wants to distinguish her approach from liberal pluralism. The « radical democratic pluralism » that she advances rests on the thesis that agents should have empowerment, not autonomy, a concept that, for Young, involves publicity, not privacy (251).

It is misleading to conclude that the similarity between Young’s politics of difference and radical plural democracy entails an endorsement of the position by the feminist community. Contemporary feminism is far from monolithic; it is impossible to identify the feminist position on any issue. Despite this, the similarities between Young’s position and radical plural democracy are significant. How to deal with the differences between women and how to fashion a feminist politics without « essential woman » are key issues in contemporary feminist theory. Young’s approach, an approach that has much in common with radical plural democracy, has been widely acclaimed in the feminist community. It is also significant that another prominent feminist theorist, one whose philosophical roots lie in the Habermasian tradition, also articulates a position that has much in common with radical plural democracy. Nancy Fraser argues against the thesis that liberal democracy is the final solution for all social systems. Instead she argues for a politics of « parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses » (67). What we need, she asserts, is a critical political sociology of a form of public life in which multiple but unequal publics participate (70). Despite differences in jargon, this comes to much the same thing as the theories of Mouffe and Young.

The compatibility between radical plural democracy and some aspects of feminism exemplifies how a resistance movement can benefit from utilizing the theoretical tools of postmodern thought that these theorists advance. Noticeably missing from the theoretical mix in these approaches to feminism, however, are aspects of liberalism. The case of feminism illustrates the futility of pursuing the theoretical incorporation of liberalism that Mouffe espouses. While the feminists discussed above refer frequently to postmodern concepts such as the multiplicity of subjects, the liberal notion of the autonomous subject is completely jettisoned.

This exploration of feminism, furthermore, also points to a problem the theorists of radical plural democracy have failed to deal with successfully: politics. Feminist theory is necessarily political; it demands a connection to political issues for concretely situated women. Feminist theorists have devoted much attention to fashioning a viable feminist politics from the basic principles of feminist analysis. The theorists of radical plural democracy have not. The approach, in effect, has no political program. Although references to politics are scattered throughout the works of these theorists, they are both intermittent and decidedly vague. The major stumbling block to the articulation of a politics informed by radical plural democracy is the question of the identity of the subject. Theorists of radical plural democracy want to incorporate the postmodern deconstruction of the modernist subject into their approach. But how to do so seems to escape them. I quoted Mouffe above as arguing that what we need is « the articulation of an ensemble of subject positions…precariously sutured. » She fails to even begin to suggest how this might be realized.

In a book devoted entirely to the question of political identity Laclau (The Making of Political Identities) argues that with the demise of the Cold War everything is up for grabs, especially political identity. Half of Laclau’s book is devoted to « real politics » – the attempt to apply radical plural democracy to actual political issues. But this attempt increases rather than dispels the suspicion that radical plural democracy has no viable political program. The main problem for the authors of the articles in the book is reconciling the identity politics of many new social movements with the anti-essentialist subject of postmodernism. One of the authors, for example, suggests that « Against such an identitary logic, the possibility of developing a more democratic logic of identity construction, one that recognizes the peculiar logic of a ‘never-sutured identity,’ will be held out » (Norval, 119). But this possibility is only held out, never realized. Articulating a postmodern approach to the subject that at the same time is capable of political action is a difficult theoretical task, but, I would argue, not an insuperable one. Those who attempt to fashion a radical plural democratic approach to identity, however, need to devote much more attention to this task.

The political weaknesses of radical plural democracy, thus, are significant, particularly for an approach that claims to be the salvation of leftist politics. On the theoretical front the story is different. In a theoretical sense the strengths of radical plural democracy are identical to its weaknesses. The approach brings together the dominant theoretical positions of the late twentieth century: postmodernism, poststructuralism, language theory, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, even liberal democracy. It also incorporates the new social movements such as feminism, ecology, and the identity politics of racial and ethnic minorities. And it accomplishes this without abandoning the emancipatory impulse of marxism. This is no mean feat. No other position on the theoretical horizon, left or right, has accomplished this.

But at what price has this theoretical feat been achieved? Is the eclecticism of radical plural democracy an appropriate response to the demise of metanarratives in the postmodern world or is it simply incoherent? Despite my criticisms of the approach I would like to suggest that radical plural democracy performs a significant theoretical function. A sea change is occurring in twentieth century thought, a movement away from the absolute to the relative, from the universal to the particular, from the transcendental subject to the situated self. Radical plural democracy is part of this change. Its theorists attempt to incorporate the moral force of marxism and the insights of the movements, both intellectual and political, that constitute this change. In some respects they have not succeeded in this goal. They try to bring too much under their theoretical umbrella. The new approaches to liberal democracy, in particular, do not fit. But I think that their attempt is important and, in some sense, inevitable. I believe, with Foucault, that we are witnessing an epistemological shift, a paradigm change, in the late twentieth century. This new continent of thought demands a new approach to politics, particularly the politics of resistance. Radical plural democracy has not met this demand. But it may have begun the process by which a future theoretical approach will accomplish this goal.


1 ­­ Mouffe uses the phrase « radical and plural democracy. » I prefer this wording. (Retour au texte)

2 ­­ Aronowitz’s Crisis in Historical Materialism (1981) prefaces many of the themes of radical plural democracy. But, unlike Laclau and Mouffe, Aronowitz remains within the confines of Marxist theory. His « radical democracy » is rooted in the Soviets of the Russian Revolution, not postmodernism (1993). He attempts to fit the new social movements into Marxist theory, not to radically restructure it. Norberto Bobbio (1988) also prefaces the themes of radical plural democracy. Bobbio initiates the discussion of the relationship between socialism and liberal democratic theory that Laclau and Mouffe continue. (Retour au texte)

3 ­­ In a related redefinition of the subject from a post-Marxist perspective Guattari and Negri argue that communism has nothing to do with « collective barbarism » but, rather, is « the most intense experience of subjectivity » (1987:39). (Retour au texte)

4 ­­ See, among others, Connolly (1991), Hekman (1995), White (1991), Scott (1990), Shapiro (1992), Arac (1986), and Cornell (1991, 1992). (Retour au texte)

5 ­­ Todd May (1994) goes so far as to argue that postmodernism entails an anarchist politics. (Retour au texte)


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