For Public Seminar, McKenzie Wark writes about Chantal Mouffe's political theory and "demos," and how increasingly relevant Mouffe is in light of Brexit and Trump neo-fascist bruhaha. Read Wark in partial below, in full via Public Seminar.
Watching the American Presidential Primaries and now the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK on leaving the European Union, I am struck by how apt the political theory of Chantal Mouffe is to both situations. Both in the US and the UK, there was a contest as to whether liberal democracy would be liberal or ‘democratic.’ And if it is to be democratic, it was a contest as to what kind of demos – people – democracy is supposedly about. Or so it appeared to me, given that I was reading Chantal Mouffe at the time. Her two most recent books Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (Verso, 2013) and The Democratic Paradox (Verso, 2005) provide a useful perspective, although perhaps a limited one.
With Brexit, the ‘liberal’ position was to remain; the ‘democratic’ one was to leave. Curiously enough, both Labour and the Tories had to give some version of the liberal position. David Cameron was more convincing on this than Jeremy Corbyn, who has considerably more reservations about the benefits of the EU for labour. The ‘democratic’ position was put by the Tory euroskeptics and the quasi-fascist UKIP. By democratic, I mean an appeal to a people pictured as having a strong sense of identity that excludes others. Of course, this appeal was cynical, and a means of getting votes for some version of a return to British ‘sovereignty’, which in the hands of the Tories would mean further undermining of worker’s rights, consumer protection and so forth.
Interestingly, both major parties are in crisis. Cameron was astute enough to step down and leave his skeptic opponents in the party with figuring out if a Brexit is even possible. The ‘liberal’, Blairite faction in Labour seized the opportunity to overthrown Corbyn, who stands for a democratic turn within the party, but to the left. Corbyn is left with the difficult task of finding an affective — and effective — democratic language that is anti-racist but which speaks for a people against its enemies. Its enemies in this case being a trans-national ruling class.
Meanwhile, in the US, two versions of the liberal in liberal democracy were represented by the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. The former was able to fend off a version of the democratic, the latter was not. It might seem tendentious to bracket both Bush and Clinton together as ‘liberal’ and even more so to treat their challengers, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as ‘democratic,’ but there’s a specific meaning of both terms within which this makes sense.
Liberal here has more its classical than its American meaning. 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. Democratic also has a quite specific meaning. Both Sanders and Trump emphasize a rather stronger sense of what it means to be included as a citizen in the demos, 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 comes close to being class based while the other is nationalist and jingoistic. Interestingly, both coupled a strong sense of who the demos is against with a strong sense of what the demos can share. At least in the initial part of his campaign, Trump was careful to support existing social welfare and healthcare benefits for what in narrow and racist terms are perceive to be deserving members of the demos. Sanders, on the other hand, stressed making higher education free. In very different ways, these democratic challengers appealed to a stronger sense of participation in the demos. Citizenship is not just an abstract category, but a felt sense of belonging and sharing.
American politics might not be all that exceptional here. Many polities are experiencing something similar. Mainstream parties of center-right and center-left complexion find themselves challenged from the left and the right, sometimes by a left that is more clearly socialist and a right that is in direct and obvious continuity with fascist formations of the past. That version of liberalism often called neoliberalism finds itself under pressure from its old rivals, both of which can be seen in turn as competing versions of a democratic challenge. In some cases, such as Greece, the left-democratic force prevailed; in others, such as Poland or Hungary, the right-democratic force prevailed. In Austria, the Presidential election ended up being a closely contested affair between the Green candidate and a far-right neo-fascist.
Two different kinds of stress might be pulling liberal democracy apart. One is austerity. A polity stripped to the minimum of regulatory functionality for the benefit of financial looting provokes reactions against the liberal side of liberal democracy to which both class and nation based versions of the democratic can appear as a alternative. In Greece, for once, this favored the demos of the left, although once Syriza was elected, it turned out there was not a whole lot they could do – or were willing to do – about austerity.
The other stress is the global refugee crisis. It seems reasonable now to say that climate change is adding to the usual raft of geopolitical shenanigans leading to destabilization on the edges of the imperial system. Aridity is spreading across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Millions of people are on the move. Both in Europe Union states and in Australia, right wing versions of the demos as a shared national belonging is alarmingly popular. Both center-left and center-right parties find themselves caught up in accommodating this rightist demos within otherwise liberal versions of politics, more concerned with keeping the wheels of commerce turning.