Artistic Activism and Agonistic Politics Chantal Mouffe
Can artistic practices still play a critical role in a society where the differences between art and advertising have become blurred and where artists and cultural workers have become a necessary part of capitalist production? Scrutinizing the “new spirit of capitalism,” Luc Boltanski and Eve Chappell1 have shown how the demands for autonomy of the new movements of the 1960s were harnessed in the development of the post-Fordist networked economy and transformed in new forms of control. The aesthetic strategies of the counterculture—the search for authenticity, the ideal of self-management, and the antihierarchical exigency—are now used in order to promote the conditions required by the current mode of capitalist regulation, replacing the disciplinary framework characteristic of the Fordist period. Nowadays, artistic and cultural production plays a central role in the process of capital valorization and, through “neomanagement,” artistic critique has become an important element of capitalist productivity. This has led some people to claim that art has lost its critical power because any form of critique is automatically recuperated and neutralized by capitalism. Others, however, offer a different view and see the new situation as opening the way for different strategies of opposition. To be sure the modernist idea of the avant-garde has to be abandoned, but that does not mean that any form of critique has become impossible. What is needed is a widening of the field of artistic intervention by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the program of total social mobilization of capitalism. The objective should be to undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its reproduction. I believe that artistic practices can contribute to the struggle against capitalist domination, but this requires a proper understanding of the dynamics of democratic politics, an understanding which I contend can only be obtained by acknowledging the political in its antagonistic dimension as well as the contingent nature of any type of social order. It is only within such a perspective that one can grasp the hegemonic struggle which characterizes democratic politics, a hegemonic struggle in which artistic practices can play a crucial role.
The point of departure for my reflections is the difficulty that we currently have for envisaging the problems facing our societies in a political way. Contrary to what neoliberal ideologists would like us to believe, political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts. Proper political questions always involve decisions which require making a choice between conflicting alternatives. This incapacity to think politically is to a great extent due to the uncontested hegemony of liberalism. “Liberalism,” in the way I use the term in the present context, refers to a philosophical discourse with many variants, united not by a common essence but by a multiplicity of what Wittgenstein calls “family resemblances.” There are certainly many liberalisms, some more progressive than others but, save a few exceptions, the dominant tendency in liberal thought is characterized by a rationalist and individualist approach which is unable to adequately grasp the pluralistic nature of the social world, with the conflicts that pluralism entails—conflicts for which no rational solution could ever exist, hence the dimension of antagonism that characterizes human societies. The typical liberal understanding of pluralism is that we live in a world in which there are indeed many perspectives and values and that, due to empirical limitations, we will never be able to adopt them all, but that, when put together, they constitute a harmonious ensemble. This is why this type of liberalism must negate the political in its antagonistic dimension. Indeed, one of the main tenets of this liberalism is the rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based on reason. No wonder the political constitutes its blind spot. Liberalism has to negate antagonism since, by bringing to the fore the inescapable moment of decision—in the strong sense of having to decide in an undecidable terrain—antagonism reveals the very limit of any rational consensus.
Next to antagonism, the concept of hegemony is, in my approach, the other key notion for addressing the question of “the political.” To acknowledge the dimension of “the political” as the ever-present possibility of antagonism requires coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and the undecidability which pervades every order. It requires, in other words, recognizing the hegemonic nature of every kind of social order and the fact that every society is the product of a series of practices attempting to establish order in a context of contingency. The political is linked to the acts of hegemonic institutions. It is in this sense that one has to differentiate the social from the political. The social is the realm of sedimented practices—that is, practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and which are taken for granted, as if they were self-grounded. Sedimented social practices are a constitutive part of any possible society; not all social bonds are questioned at the same time. The social and the political have thus the status of what Heidegger called “existentials”—i.e., necessary dimensions of any societal life. If the political—understood in its hegemonic sense—involves the visibility of the acts of social institution, it is impossible to determine a priori what is social and what is political independently of any contextual reference. Society is not to be seen as the unfolding of a logic exterior to itself, whatever the source of this logic could be: forces of production, development of the Spirit, laws of history, etc. Every order is the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. The frontier between the social and the political is essentially unstable and requires constant displacements and renegotiations between social agents. Things could always be otherwise and therefore every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. It is in that sense that it can be called “political” since it is the expression of a particular structure of power relations. Power is constitutive of the social because the social could not exist without the power relations through which it is given shape. What is at a given moment considered as the “natural” order—jointly with the “common sense” which accompanies it—is the result of sedimented hegemonic practices; it is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity exterior to the practices that bring it into being.
Every order is therefore political and based on some form of exclusion. There are always other possibilities that have been repressed and that can be reactivated. The articulatory practices through which a certain order is established and the meaning of social institutions is fixed are “hegemonic practices.” Every hegemonic order is susceptible of being challenged by counterhegemonic practices—i.e., practices which will attempt to disarticulate the existing order so as to install another form of hegemony.
What is at stake in what I call the “agonistic” struggle,2 which I see as the core of a vibrant democracy, is the very configuration of power relations around which a given society is structured. It is a struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which can never be reconciled rationally.
An agonistic conception of democracy acknowledges the contingent character of the hegemonic politico-economic articulations which determine the specific configuration of a society at a given moment. They are precarious and pragmatic constructions which can be disarticulated and transformed as a result of the agonistic struggle among adversaries. Contrary to the various liberal models, the agonistic approach that I am advocating recognizes that society is always politically instituted and never forgets that the terrain in which hegemonic interventions take place is always the outcome of previous hegemonic practices and that it is never a neutral one. This is why it denies the possibility of non-adversarial democratic politics and criticizes those who, by ignoring the dimension of “the political,” reduce politics to a set of supposedly technical moves and neutral procedures.
The agonistic model of democratic politics that I have just delineated challenges the widespread conception that, albeit in different ways, informs most visions of the public space conceived as the terrain where consensus can emerge. For the agonistic model, on the contrary, public space is the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation. I have spoken so far of public space, but I need to specify straight away that we are not dealing here with one single space. According to the agonistic approach, public spaces are always plural and the agonistic confrontation takes place in a multiplicity of discursive surfaces. I also want to insist on a second important point. While there is no underlying principle of unity, no predetermined center to this diversity of spaces, there always exist diverse forms of articulation among them and we are not faced with the kind of dispersion envisaged by some postmodernist thinkers. Nor are we dealing with the kind of “smooth” space found in Deleuze and his followers. Public spaces are always striated and hegemonically structured. A given hegemony results from a specific articulation of a diversity of spaces and this means that the hegemonic struggle also consists of the attempt to create a different form of articulation among public spaces.
My approach is therefore clearly very different from the one defended by Jürgen Habermas, who, when he envisages the political public sphere, presents it as the place where deliberation aiming at a rational consensus takes place. To be sure, Habermas now accepts that it is improbable, given the limitations of social life, that such a consensus could effectively be reached and he sees his ideal situation of communication as a “regulative idea.” However, according to the perspective that I am advocating, the impediments to the Habermasian ideal speech situation are not empirical but ontological and the rational consensus that he presents as a regulative idea is in fact a conceptual impossibility. Indeed it would require the availability of a consensus without exclusion which is precisely what the agonistic approach reveals to be impossible.
My conception of the agonistic public space also differs from that of Hannah Arendt, which has become so popular recently. In my view, the main problem with the Arendtian understanding of “agonism” is that, to put it in a nutshell, it is an “agonism without antagonism.” What I mean is that while Arendt puts great emphasis on human plurality and insists that politics deals with the community and reciprocity of human beings which are different, she never acknowledges that this plurality is at the origin of antagonistic conflicts. According to her to think politically is to develop the ability to see things from a multiplicity of perspectives. As her reference to Kant and his idea of “enlarged thought” testifies, her pluralism is not fundamentally different from the liberal one because it is inscribed in the horizon of an intersubjective agreement. Indeed what she looks for in Kant’s doctrine of the aesthetic judgment is a procedure for ascertaining intersubjective agreement in public space. Despite significant differences between their respective approaches, Arendt, like Habermas, ends up envisaging public space in a consensual way.
What kind of link can we establish between this theoretical discussion and the field of artistic practices? Before addressing this question I want to stress that I do not see the relation between art and politics in terms of two separately constituted fields—art on one side and politics on the other—between which a relation would need to be established. There is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art. This is why I consider that it is not useful to make a distinction between political and nonpolitical art. From the point of view of the theory of hegemony, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order or in challenging it and this is why they necessarily have a political dimension. The political, for its part, concerns the symbolic ordering of social relations—what Claude Lefort calls “the mise en scène,” or “the mise en forme” of human coexistence—and this is where its aesthetic dimension lies.
The real issue concerns the possible forms of critical art, the different ways in which artistic practices can contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony. Once we accept that identities are never given beforehand but that they are always the result of processes of identification, that they are discursively constructed, the question that arises is the type of identity that critical artistic practices should aim at fostering. Clearly those who advocate the creation of agonistic public spaces where the objective is to unveil all that is repressed by the dominant consensus are going to envisage the relation between artistic practices and their public in a very different way than those whose objective is the creation of consensus, even if this consensus is seen as a critical one. According to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissent, art that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aimed at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.
In my view this agonistic approach is particularly well suited to grasping the nature of the new forms of artistic activism that have emerged recently and that, in a great variety of ways, aim at challenging the existing consensus. Those artistic-activist practices are of very different types, from a variety of new urban struggles like “Reclaim the streets” in Britain or the “Tute Bianche” in Italy to the “Stop advertising” campaigns in France and the “Nike Ground-Rethinking Space” in Austria. We can find another example in the strategy of “identity correction” of the Yes Men who appear under different identities—for instance as representatives of the World Trade Organization—develop a very effective satire of neoliberal ideology.3 Their aim is to target institutions fostering neoliberalism at the expense of people’s well-being and to assume their identities in order to offer correctives. For instance, the following text appeared in 1999 in a parody of the WTO website: “The World Trade Organization is a giant international bureaucracy whose goal is to help businesses by enforcing ‘free trade’: the freedom of transnationals to do business however they see fit. The WTO places this freedom above all other freedoms, including the freedom to eat, drink water, not eat certain things, treat the sick, protect the environment, grow your own crops, organize a trade union, maintain social services, govern, have a foreign policy. All those freedoms are under attack by huge corporations working under the veil of ‘free trade,’ that mysterious right that we are told must trump all others.”4 Some people mistook this false website for the real one and the Yes Men even managed to appear as WTO representatives at several international conferences where one of their satirical interventions consisted, for instance, in proposing a telematic worker-surveillance device in the shape of a yard-long golden phallus.
I submit that to grasp the political character of those varieties of artistic activism we need to see them as counter-hegemonic interventions whose objective is to occupy the public space in order to disrupt the smooth image that corporate capitalism is trying to spread, bringing to the fore its repressive character.
1 / Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, London 2005.
2 / For a development of this “agonistic” approach, see Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, chap. 4, Verso, London 2000.
3 / See for instance their book: Andy Bichlbaum, The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization, The Disinformation Company Ltd., New York 2004.
4 / Yes Men website, http://www.theyesmen.org.