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Knops 2007 – DPhil, Lecturer, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, UK (March, Andrew, Journal of Political Philosophy, 15.1, “Debate: Agonism as Deliberation – On Mouffe’s Theory of Democracy”, Wiley Online)
THE arguments advanced in Chantal Mouffe's The Democratic Paradox represent a sustained attack on deliberative accounts of democracy.1 In this article I suggest that, contrary to Mouffe's claims, her model is compatible with and indeed presupposes a deliberative framework. I argue first that Mouffe's agonistic alternative to deliberation is reliant for its coherence on the notion of rational consensus, which at the same time constitutes the main target of her critique of deliberative democracy. While reliant on that notion, she is barred from using it because of her objections to it. The second stage of my evaluation of Mouffe's case therefore consists in a rehabilitation of deliberative notions of consensus against Mouffe's objections. I show how each of these obstacles can be overcome by a deliberative theory. In the process I relate the postmodern concerns, which underpin Mouffe's agonistic approach, to deliberative theory. I then show how Mouffe's model may be seen as coherent within a deliberative framework.


The first point to make about Mouffe's argument in The Democratic Paradox is that it promotes a single, universal characterisation of the political. The terrain of the political is portrayed as constituted through power, making antagonism ‘ineradicable (DP, p. 104). This is a universal claim about the political. Moreover, Mouffe seeks to establish the acceptability of these claims by giving reasons. This implies that she assumes that it is possible to establish such a universal model of politics through rational argument. This is precisely what she criticises deliberative theorists for.

Of course, the content of the model for which Mouffe seeks rational acceptance is portrayed as very different to a deliberative approach (DP, p. 102). In particular, it accepts the inevitability of antagonism, seeks to convert this into adversarial contest, and rejects the possibility of ever reaching consensus. Agreements are always contingent assertions of hegemonic power that necessarily exclude and are therefore unstable.2 However, Mouffe does not believe that politics should be left as merely the interplay of differences within this domain of power.

Firstly, Mouffe argues that there should be common adherence to – consensus on – at least minimal ‘ethico-political’ principles of democracy. She is rather vague about what these principles might be, although specifying ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ as among them (DP, p. 102). Of course this could hardly be otherwise: her theory is a theory of democracy, so there must be some shared version of democracy for individuals to adhere to, and for the theory to defend. Mouffe immediately qualifies this constraint by arguing that there will be many different accounts of how these minimal principles might be applied and pursued, and that there should be no limitations on competition between opposing versions (DP, p. 103). Nevertheless, Mouffe still owes an explanation of how there can be such a consensus in the first place, of what such a consensus might consist, why it should be privileged over other versions of the political – for example, oligarchy, or dictatorship – and how this might be justified without recourse to some form of rational argument akin to that deployed by deliberative theorists.

Although less clear, it is also apparent that Mouffe requires all participants in her preferred adversarial mode of interaction to abide by a further set of principles: a mutual respect for beliefs, and the right to defend them (DP, pp. 102–103). Given that she contrasts such exchange with more aggressive antagonistic conflict (DP, p. 102), this suggests at least some overlap with the principles of equal respect and autonomy underlying a deliberative approach. Nevertheless, on this characterisation the fit with deliberation is not complete. It is possible to argue that other forms of interaction short of violence, such as bargaining, negotiation and trading between different interests, show respect for others’ beliefs and their right to defend them, and fall short of ‘annihilation’ or violence.

However, Mouffe adds a further qualification to the ‘free-play’ of differences that other theories permit. She argues that it should be possible to identify, condemn and act against relations of subordination or domination (DP, pp. 19–21). It would seem therefore that we should interpret her description of adversarial relations, and in particular the principle of respect for the right of others to defend their beliefs, in light of this further stipulation. So where relations of subordination restrict a person's ability to defend their beliefs, those relations should be opposed. If we read these two principles – of respect for belief and opposition to subordination – together, then Mouffe's model does appear to be privileging the kind of open fair exchange of reasons between equals that deliberative theorists promote. Not only do these dimensions of Mouffe's formula constitute further examples of consensus that can be reached in principle and by rational means (since Mouffe uses arguments to motivate our acceptance of them), but the content of that formula looks remarkably like the method for reaching collective decisions through a procedure for rational discussion that deliberative theorists support.

An insistence on the need to distinguish and combat relations of subordination is necessary for any theory to have critical bite. What does and what does not amount to oppression, and what should or should not be condemned, must then be gauged by reference to some sort of standard. However, Mouffe would seem to assume that we already all have access to such shared standards, or at very least that it is possible to establish them. Again, this marks her acceptance of another form of consensus – as she herself acknowledges (DP, p. 134). Furthermore, if that consensus is not to be biased against a particular group in society, it is difficult to see how the mechanism for reaching it can be other than a rational discussion. To argue otherwise would be to perpetuate the imposition of a hegemonic, partial and exclusive viewpoint – the exercise of power – that Mouffe is arguing against. So here Mouffe's theory requires the possibility, at least, of a rational consensus not merely on procedural matters that frame democratic exchange, but also on the substance or outputs of that process – practical political decisions. While she presents this as a small exception to her thesis in The Democratic Paradox, it would seem to be pretty much all-embracing. Having described politics as defined by the exercise of power, her theory turns out to admit of the possibility of rational consensus on matters of power – in other words, on any aspect of the subject matter of politics.

From all this we can conclude that Mouffe's alternative is firstly grounded in a universal account of the political and the democratic which she wishes us to accept on the basis of the rational arguments she advances in The Democratic Paradox. Since it is a defence of democracy, this model assumes further consensus on the values of liberty and equality, which are to be interpreted as incorporating respect for others’ beliefs and their right to defend them. Mouffe also argues that it is to incorporate an opposition to relations of oppression or subordination. Mouffe sees the purpose of political action as the identification of such oppression and subordination, and the organisation of collective action against it. This implies a deliberative mechanism of fair and equal exchange of reasons between all affected as the standard of legitimacy for political decisions, if decisions are not to reproduce the relations of subordination that Mouffe wishes to combat.

So it would seem that Mouffe's own agonistic alternative to deliberative democracy, designed to counter the impossibility of rational consensus, is itself reliant on that very notion. Without it, it is neither a theory of democracy (as opposed to a mere description of the domain of politics) nor a critical theory allowing for collective action against oppression and subordination. Yet Mouffe is now faced with a dilemma. The very reason for advocating her alternative was the impossibility of the notion of rational consensus, and she has offered detailed arguments to show how rational consensus was impossible. However, it now turns out that her alternative relies on the notion of rational consensus that she has rejected. Either she must abandon her alternative altogether, or she must rehabilitate the notion of rational consensus, and with it the idea of deliberative democracy that she has criticised. I will explore the second option.


Mouffe's objection to deliberative democracy is that it is founded on a notion of rational consensus that is not only empirically, but conceptually impossible to realise. Because of this, it is untenable that any one theory of democracy should be preferred over others on purely rational grounds, and within a democracy it is impossible to reach neutral agreement on what would be in the best interests of the collectivity. In this section I will defend deliberative democracy against these charges, showing that Mouffe's criticisms do not establish that rational consensus is conceptually impossible. It may be very difficult to achieve, but this does not undermine its utility as a goal at which we should aim. In mounting this defence I will initially concentrate on one of the two perspectives from which Mouffe launches her attack – that grounded in a Wittgensteinian theory of language. This defence will also demonstrate the similarities between that theory and a deliberative theory of rational consensus.3 These arguments can then be extended to deal with Mouffe's second line of criticism from linguistic deconstruction.

A. Wittgenstein

Mouffe explicitly identifies two sources on whose interpretation of Wittgenstein she draws in criticising deliberative democracy. They are Hannah Pitkin, in her work Wittgenstein and Justice, and James Tully.4 To do justice to Mouffe's argument, I will stick to the version of Wittgenstein advanced by these two commentators.

In arguing against the possibility of rational consensus, Mouffe uses three key Wittgenstinian concepts: the idea that general terms in language are learned through ‘practice’ and not through the application of a conceptual scheme to particular cases; that such practice is grounded in specific ‘forms of life’; and that forms of life are not susceptible of simple classification or description in the form of rules (DP, pp. 70–1). Using the sources above, I will take a closer look at these concepts, to show that it is indeed possible to reconcile such notions with the possibility of a rational consensus reached through deliberation.

As Pitkin explains, Wittgenstein's version of language suggests that we learn terms through practice. The traditional account of language learning views it as the process of associating a term, for example a name, with a particular object or picture of that object in our heads. We can then apply that name when we encounter the object again. We associate a definition with that name, and it becomes a label for the object.5 While language can be learned and used in this way, Wittgenstein argues that this is a very limited account, which only explains a small section of what we use language to do. What about learning the words ‘trust’, ‘spinster’ or ‘envy’?6 He therefore develops a more comprehensive account of language learning which sees it as a particular practice. We learn to use a particular phrase in a particular context. Having heard its use in a context before, we hear it repeated in similar circumstances. We therefore learn to associate it with aspects of those circumstances, and to reproduce and use it in those circumstances for ourselves. So, for example, the (polite!) child learns that “Please may I have the marmalade?” results in the person who uttered it being passed the marmalade. They make the same sounds, and they are themselves passed the marmalade. They later learn that “Please may I have the jam?” leads to their being passed the jam. Finally, they understand that “Please may I have x?” will lead to their being given whatever they choose to substitute for x. This example is helpful because it shows how the meaning of a word can be refined through its use. It may be that a child initially only associates “Please may I have . . .” with marmalade. It is only when the same words are used to elicit the passing of another object – in our example, jam – that they associate it with that other object, and then eventually, after several iterations, with any object. This process may also involve them using the phrase, and projecting it into new contexts of their own. It may also, of course, involve them making mistakes, which are then corrected.

Because words are developed

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