Democratic politics at the limit of liberalism

1. Following the Kantian formulation of the idea of moral freedom, after A Theory of Justice, in Rawls’ considerations of the properly political (i.e., non-metaphysical) conception of justice, we are faced with what we might call the fact of pluralism: “the diversity of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away … it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy”. This diversity is both the presupposition and the end of liberal politics. The diversity consists not of antagonisms to be overcome or sublated but as the irreducible multiplicity of forms of human life. This plurality is a fact in a twofold Kantian sense: (1) it is not deduced but given and (2) it is forced upon us as the condition and manifestation of freedom (freedom both demands this plurality and is made possible by it). The domain of the political, according to Rawls, is therefore “distinct from the associational [emphasis added], which is voluntary in ways that the political is not …” given that, in his preferred formulation, we enter the domain of the political at birth and only leave it at death.

Rawls is consistent with the contract tradition (with the possible exception of Locke), even as he takes it to its limit by reducing the ideal of contract into its basic form not as reciprocity but as blind equality. The ideal construction of political equality is, however, only the first half of the twin problems of legitimacy and stability. The latter requires the overlapping consensus of a specifically political conception of justice as an overriding value in cases of conflict. It is precisely because “a political conception of justice [is] regarded not as a consequence of a comprehensive doctrine but as in itself sufficient to express values that normally outweigh whatever other values oppose them …” that the present crises of liberalism have exposed its inability to manage the contradictions of separating the ethical from the political. We only acquire an allegiance to liberal institutions when, over time, the civic institutions of justice “normally counterbalance whatever [other] values may oppose them” because they make possible the background conditions of private life. Liberalism fails, then, in one of two cases: either the collapse of fairness in those institutions or when the virtues of social cooperation – perhaps as a result of the former – are no longer taken to be ultimate.

The normative autonomy of the political, in Rawls’ conception, is abrogated by the inherent ambiguity of the fact of pluralism. On the one hand, “history tells of a plurality of not unreasonable comprehensive doctrines. That these comprehensive doctrines are divergent makes an overlapping consensus necessary”; yet the existence of such diversity is insufficient to account for their reasonableness. Plurality is in the relevant sense not an empirical fact but a fact of reason. An overlapping consensus is not only necessary because of the diversity of comprehensive doctrines but it is only possible because of their divergence. The limitation of Rawls’ analysis is to have taken the divergence of comprehensive doctrines to be one of content but not of form. If the diversity of comprehensive doctrines were merely empirical, then the paradoxes of toleration become inescapable and the libertarian conflict of interpretations erodes both the content and the force of the overlapping consensus necessary to maintain the separation of the political from the ethical; the skeptical epoché is fatal to the possibility of politics. The fundamental fact of reason is not that there are many truths but that the truth of truth is the plurality of its expression.

(Similarly, the limitation of liberalism in general is to have mistaken that to which we owe our allegiance (e.g., civic institutions) with that from which we declare our allegiances; only a bureaucrat can assert with a straight face that we can owe allegiance to an institution.)

The virtue of Rawls’ analysis, on the other hand, is to have recognized that the construction of the political requires not only a commitment to freedom in its negative sense but the existence of a community of shared values (in short, to have recognized the abstractions to which a Lockean account is suspect). The question, however, is in what sense those shared values are taken to be political. Rawls’ insight that politics is non-voluntary is a recognition of the fact that, fundamentally, our existence is not solitary but shared (we neither die alone nor are born alone); in other words, the materiality of our existence implicates us within the flesh and fabric of a world that touches and shelters us. Politics is an expression of this shared (singular-plural, in Nancy’s terms) existence; thus, the processes and expressions of individuation are intrinsically non-political and the reductio of politics to the maintenance of a modus vivendi is the only possible consequence of the ideology of liberal individualism (whose dissolution immediately invites fascism). The fundamental predicament of politics is not that we must merely live with (viz., tolerate) others who have different – and equally reasonable – conceptions of the good; it is that, in Deleuzian terms, nomadic subjects are sundered by divergences and yet belong to the same world: the inconsistencies that must be managed are not between conflicting conceptions of the good but internal to any subjective capacities from which we might find our bearings.

2. Rawlsian constructivism is the site of the familiar tensions of liberalism, which can break in either direction, as the point of the dialectical inversion of the universal and the particular, circumventing the theologico-political problem but at the cost of founding the possibility of democratic politics on the public use of reason. The problem with reason, of course, is not that whatever might pass for it is too narrow but that it is easily susceptible to counterfeit.

In her own criticism of the models of deliberative democracy proposed by Rawls and Habermas, Mouffe observes that

what is really at stake in the allegiance to democratic institutions is the constitution of an ensemble of practices that make the constitution of democratic citizens possible. This is not a matter of rational justification but of availability of democratic forms of individuality and subjectivity. … The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject, which sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects [whether communicative, public, etc.]. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible.

Therefore, Mouffe claims, all rationalist machinations must break against the ontological limit of pluralism as the very condition of possibility for deliberation but at the same time that which undermines the possibility of the necessary consensus to bind the allegiance of democratic subjects to institutions that must simultaneously enable and subordinate them.

Mouffe’s solution embraces the antagonisms constitutive of pluralism through the recognition of adversaries as a “legitimate” enemy, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality”. The agon of politics takes place not discursively but through the formation of power relations that are constitutive of democratic subjects themselves; therefore, “our shared language of politics is entangled with power and needs to be apprehended in terms of hegemonic relations”, i.e., the “point of convergence – or rather mutual collapse – between objectivity and power”. Power striates but it can also be recursive; we can be overpowered but also empowered (freedom from is the uncanny photo negative of freedom to). Antagonism does not erase equality but, rather, presupposes it. Antagonism, however, also only produces equality on the condition that in conflict we aspire to the universal. It is this tension between agonistic desires and the claim to universality that produces the aporetic condition of politics that Balibar has dubbed “equaliberty”. On the one hand, through an Aristotelian elenchos, Balibar argues that the structural coupling of equality and liberty can be demonstrated by mutual subtraction: “if freedom is not equality, then either it is superiority—mastery—or it is subjection and dependence on some power, which is absurd. Thus, correlatively, equality must be thought as the general form of the radical negation of all subjection and mastery, that is, as the liberation of freedom itself from an external or internal power that takes it over and transforms it into its opposite”. On the other hand, the demands for equality and liberty “cannot be enunciated in the same language, in terms of the same discourse”. In particular, Balibar proposes a tetradic structure of mediation between equality and liberty by property and community (fratnerity), where the one easily degrades into liberal individualism and the other into reactionary nationalism. For this reason, “there will be permanent tension between the conditions that historically determine the construction of institutions that conform to the proposition of equaliberty and the excessive, hyperbolic universality of the statement”.

The perennial aporia of democratic politics, then, is not only that the people do not know what they want. As Zizek observes, “the people is still here, but no longer as the mythical sovereign Subject whose will is to be enacted. Hegel was right in his critique of the democratic power of the people: ‘the people’ should be re-conceived as the passive background of the political process—the majority is always and by definition passive, there is no guarantee that it is right, and the most it can do is acknowledge and recognize itself in a project imposed by political agents. As such, the role of the people is ultimately a negative one: ‘free elections’ (or a referendum) serve as a check on the party movements, as an impediment designed to prevent what Badiou calls the brutal and destructive ‘forçage’ (enforcement) of the Truth onto the positive order of Being regulated by opinions”. As Deleuze and Guattari have also observed, one of the primary forms of repressive forces is doxa, of which the (democratic) state is one important expression. As Hobbes so keenly foresaw, a democracy suited to the negotiations of interests is merely a return to the state of nature.

The more fundamental aporia of agonistic politics consists not in the failure of negotiations but in the fact that the indeterminacy of the statement of equaliberty – in its negative universality – is incommensurate with its enunciation or its plural reference indexed to the subjects capable of asserting it. The people both do not but also cannot know what they want. The material consequences of the statement of equaliberty “depend entirely on relations of forces and their evolution within the conjecture, within which it will always be necessary to practically construct individual and collective referents for equaliberty, with more or less prudence and precision, but also audacity and insolence against the established powers”.