Tag Archives: Chantal Mouffe

What can Machiavelli teach us about democracy?

The Role of Conflict in Democracy According to Machiavelli and Mouffe

By Giulio Caperchi

It’s hard to deny that the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli enjoys a pretty vicious rep in the back alleys of political philosophy. If my memory serves me right, I’m quite sure that John Locke once referred to him as the “bad boy of political theory.”

So what can the a-moral realist, the cruel pragmatist and the counselor of ruthless princes ever teach us emancipated moderns about democracy? While Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are without a doubt hardly “democratic”, there is another façade of this eccentric Florentine’s thought which is scarcely talked about. Contrary to his street cred, Machiavelli is one of the greatest theorists of civic republicanism, of popular liberty and of political self-determination. More importantly, Machiavelli shares a vision of politics strikingly similar to contemporary radical democrats such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

A look into Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of political relations will reveal a surprisingly innovative approach to the way we can conceptualize democratic politics. Moreover, by highlighting the similarities with contemporary theorists such as Mouffe, we can begin to advance a fresh and radical critique of today’s neoliberal democratic order. Ultimately, what Machiavelli teaches us is that the essence of politics does not reside in universal value systems but in the constitutive role that political struggle engenders. We will see that for Machiavelli and Mouffe, claims to universality serve firstly to veil vested interests and secondly to displace alternative or competing value systems. The purpose of democratic politics is not to arrive at universal “truths” but rather to foster a system where competing hegemonies emerge through political struggle and conflict.

But first, I must spend a few lines re-habilitating Machiavelli’s reputation. Machiavelli’s “good side” comes out in his Discourses on Livy (ca. 1517) where instead of counseling a ruthless prince he lays out the military and political order that a self-governing and free republic should exhibit. Using the example of ancient Republican Rome, Machiavelli asserts that a free state is one governed by its own citizens through free and accessible institutions, thereby protecting its autonomy from the caprices of kings and despots. It is the collective commitment to civic values and the common good which make republics, such as Rome, so successful and glorious:

“It is … marvelous to consider the greatness Rome reached when she freed herself from her kings. The reason is easy to understand, for it is the common good and not private gain that makes cities great.” Discourses, Book II, Chapter II.

For the great Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli is a pivotal thinker because he is the first theorist to explicitly reject a Christian moral universe in favor of a classical humanist one. This act of rejection is important as it signals that Machiavelli clearly distinguished between two rival value systems. For Machiavelli, the Christian value system based on humility, sanctity, holiness and compassion was simply incompatible with the classical humanist one based on strength, decisiveness, cunning, power-politics and the antiquae virtus. And surviving in the world that Machiavelli inhabited, that of warring renaissance Italy, required the ancient civic virtues -not the Christian ones which, according to him, made people sheep-like and fearful of embracing their own liberty. Berlin goes in so far as stating that Machiavelli’s act of rejection destroyed a central assumption at the heart of Western civilization: that there exists a single universal value system. Machiavelli therefore explodes the illusion embedded in Western rationalist and positivist thought “that there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live” through a quest for the ultimate “just” society.

Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian value system stems from his understanding of politics and of the relations between political forces. Being the ultimate pragmatist, his politics are inherently conflictual and do not appeal to any value system or universal moral framework. Political forces are always in constant and irreducible tension, where the few (i grandi) seek to control and oppress the many (il populo), and the many wish to liberate themselves from the few. And this tension, for Machiavelli, is not problematic but is actually the source of political stability:

 “In every republic there are two different inclinations: that of the people and that of the upper class, and that all the laws which are made in favor of liberty are born of the conflict between the two.”  Discourses, Book I, Chapter IV.

Similarly, radical democratic theorist Chantal Mouffe does not accept the universal framework underpinning classical liberalism. For her, theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas envision the democratic process as a mere procedure required to achieve some form of idealized consensus within societies. Allegiance to the universal rights, principles and values of classical liberalism along with an agreement on the validity of deliberative procedures are absolute prerequisites in order to play the neoliberal democratic game.

Such ideas of democracy, for Mouffe, are wrong because they ignore the inherent antagonisms present in any pluralist society. Political identities, moral frameworks, and universal truths vary wildly throughout societies and will inevitably express conflicting assumptions. Attempting to force social diversity and pluralism to conform to an alleged universal liberal value system, says Mouffe, excludes them a-priori and serves to displace them. Just like Machiavelli, her idea of politics is characterized by antagonism and conflict emerging from the inherent diversity of social identities. As such, the purpose of democracy should be to provide a political framework which transforms antagonist conflict between enemies into agonistic relations between political adversaries. Confrontation, as in Machiavelli, becomes the essence of democracy.

Machiavelli and Mouffe’s rejection of universal frameworks and their recognition of the role of conflict in politics provide the basis for a radical critique of our neoliberal democratic orders. We have seen how envisioning democracy as a quest to achieve a final universal consensus serves the purpose of excluding alternative democratic articulations. This means, for example, that ideas such as participatory democracy, economic democracy, or reducing the primacy accorded to free markets are excluded a-priori from the democratic game because they don’t conform to neoliberal assumptions.

What we are in need of, therefore, is a democratic framework in which diverse expressions of democratic politics can confront each other on equal footing. This entails that political forces such as those emerging from political Islam, from indigenous cosmology, from the assemblies of Occupy, from Pirate Parties or from the Latin American Bolivarian bloc, for example, must be accepted as legitimate and viable democratic possibilities, and not be demonized, repressed and intellectually ridiculed by the West.

Neoliberalism is one among many different democratic articulations. It is high time we give space and opportunities to other equally legitimate ones so that they may contest and confront the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts over democratic theory.

Further Reading

  • Mouffe, C. 2000. The Democratic Paradox, Verso: London
  • Mouffe, C. 2005. On the Political, Routledge: New York
  • Skinner, Q. 1996. Machiavelli: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: New York
  • Berlin, I. 1993 “The Originality of Machiavelli” in ed. Hardy, H. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “Discourses” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “The Prince” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes (on thegocblog.com)
  • Towards a New Defintion of Liberty (on thegocblog.com)


Filed under Uncategorized

“Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus

Caught Between Habermas and Mouffe

From Syntagma Square to Zuccotti Park many protesters claim to be exercising a novel idea of democratic politics, one which breaks away from the worn-out paradigms of representative democracy by presenting itself as genuinely inclusive, direct and participatory. One of the most visible slogans amongst the European Indignados movements is that of “democracia real”, meaning “real democracy”. Similarly, in the US Occupy movements many speak of new kind of democracy called “consensus democracy”[1].

This new type of politics is exercised in the hundreds of open assemblies occurring worldwide in various occupied squares. It is referred to as “real democracy” because decisions are not taken by majority vote but rather through extensive deliberation over decisions which all consent to.

And yet we may ask, what is actually “new” about consensus democracy? And is it bringing any significant contribution to democratic theory? It is useful to compare consensus democracy with other democratic theories which claim to be just as participatory, direct and inclusive. Consensus democracy in fact shares many traits with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “deliberative democracy” and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of “agonistic democracy”. From this brief analysis, we will see that the major challenge faced by these theories is the accommodation of social plurality within the process of achieving a collective consensus.

How does Consensus Decision Making Work?

Consensus decision-making offers a procedure through which participants of an assembly may take decisions collaboratively through deliberation. The decisions taken through this process are not necessarily ones that all individuals support wholeheartedly, but ones that everyone can live with[2]. As such, its goal is the facilitation of a deliberative procedure in which proposals may be reworked so as to accommodate as many interests as possible.

Consensus decision-making is an inclusive, participatory, collaborative, agreement-seeking and cooperative method of deliberation. It therefore attempts to remedy the exclusionary byproducts of majority vote and top-down approaches towards decision making[3]. However, it is not a process limiting itself to the achievement of compromise; rather, it attempts to construct new proposals from the confrontation of different ideas[4].

Participants in the assembly are helped by facilitators, which aid the smooth running of the discussion. An impartial moderator keeps the discussion on track and makes sure that anyone wanting to speak is allowed to do so. Other facilitators keep time and take down the minutes (this guarantees transparency). In order not to interrupt the discussion with applause, jeers or boos, sign language signals are practiced: the waving of open palms (twinkling) expresses consent, the crossing of the arms signifies dissent[5].

Assembly discussions produce proposals which are tested for consent. Participants have four choices when faced with a proposal. Firstly, they may express consent. Secondly, they may stand aside, signaling that they don’t fully support the proposal but that they are not against it. Thirdly, they may raise concerns and ask that it be modified. Lastly, they may block it, thereby effectively vetoing it. If this occurs, the proposal returns to assembly discussion, where it is modified/amended and re-tested for consensus until all consent to it. Blocking a proposal is a serious matter. It means that a participant deeply disagrees with it and that she/he will leave the assembly if it passes[6].

This type of democratic politics has been adopted by the Occupy and Indignados movements as an alternative to the “politics as usual” paradigm which has crippled our democratic institutions. Its leaderless and non-hierarchical mode of organization -which finds its only legitimate voice in the open, egalitarian and transparent popular assembly- provides an alternative to both traditional party-politics as well as vanguard-driven political struggle. Consensus democracy is more than anything a procedure: a process which allows for a more inclusive, direct and participatory exercise of democracy.

Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

In a similar way Jürgen Habermas’s democratic theory aims at creating a type of consensus based on extensive deliberation.  Habermas asserts that there exists a type rationality implicit in the act of communication between individuals. Communicative rationality grants legitimacy to deliberation in virtue of its intelligibility, correctness, sincerity and truth. If two individuals feel that the discussion they are having is characterized by these attributes the outcome of their deliberation will be perceived by both as rational and therefore legitimate[7].

Habermas then develops the concept of the “ideal speech situation”, an ideal space in which perfect and balanced deliberation occurs: where there is full participation, where all are equal, all have a voice, and where there are no asymmetrical power relationships. These conditions allow for the maximization of communicative rationality. If we were to re-model our political institutions on the ideal speech situation the decisions reached through such a process would be endowed with a rational consensus, and thus garner increased legitimacy. Decisions taken through this process are legitimate and enjoy a rational consensus when they are determined by the quality of the better argument rather than power[8].

He is therefore arguing that increased democratic deliberation and participation grant legitimacy to the decision making process . Introducing something akin to the ideal speech situation within our political institutions (and in civil society) would begin to restore the democratic legitimacy which they currently lack[9]. Deliberative democracy therefore attempts to produce a rational consensus between rational participants, achieved through a deliberative procedure which ensures inclusion, participation and communicative equality.

Mouffe and Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe wholeheartedly rejects the possibility of a consensus reached through the procedures of deliberative democracy. For her, Habermas fails to recognize the true nature of the political, which is not underlined by rationalism but rather by political antagonism. Mouffe believes that society is irreducibly plural, in the sense that there exist a multiplicity of different identities and ideologies which often possess irreconcilable and diametrically opposed positions. The idea that all identities may deliberate on the basis of a shared communicative rationality is therefore implausible. Also, the idea that an unadulterated and unbiased ideal speech situation should serve as a model is unrealistic[10]. Mouffe’s main critique is that Habermas understands of a rational consensus specifically in Eurocentric and liberal terms, a consensus founded primarily on individual rights and the rule of law. This excludes, a priori, individuals and collective identities who do not fully identify with liberal tenets. Such groups are therefore perceived as irrational or premodern (aboriginal peoples or Islamist movements for example) whom often react antagonistically towards impositions of liberal consensus. As such, a rational consensus may perversely exclude difference as it would not allow irrational ideas into the deliberative process[11].

For Mouffe, the future of democratic politics lies in the transformation of antagonistic social conflict into agonistic political confrontation. Instead of absorbing social plurality into a universal liberal-democratic framework we must erect the democratic institutions and discourses which allow for increased political confrontation between different ideas and identities. The sharing of the symbolic spaces and participatory democratic institutions in which to exercise our democratic rights attempts to defuse antagonism by transforming it into “agonistic” confrontation. This implies a confrontation not between enemies but between political adversaries[12]. Mouffe concludes that the “stuff” of democracy is political confrontation. Attempting to reach a final rational consensus spells the death of democracy because it puts an end to political confrontation which is the life-blood of democratic politics[13]. The type of consensus emerging from such a Mouffe’s theory is therefore not a universally shared consensus but one emerging from democratic confrontation:

“This is how I envisage the agonistic struggle, a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus: consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation”[14]

Occupy: deliberative or agonistic?

While Habermas justifies his democratic theory on the possibility of an universal rational consensus, Mouffe founds hers directly on political confrontation. The first seeks the absorption of political confrontation within consensus, the second makes political confrontation its raison d’être. But where does consensus decision-making enter this debate?

Deliberative and consensus democracy share the fact that they both offer a procedure through which to democratize decision making. However the main difference between them is that underlining deliberative democracy is the assumption that all participants share some understanding of what constitutes rationality. Yet, Mouffe has revealed that the understanding of this alleged universal rationality is specifically a liberal one, and hence is capable of excluding individuals whom do not identify with it. Contrarily, consensus decision-making makes no such assumptions. Its primary goal is to create the space and process in which egalitarian deliberation and decision-making between different political identities may occur.

In respect to the accommodation of social plurality, consensus democracy as practiced by the Occupy and Indignados movements is closer to Mouffe’s agonistic democracy. It does not seek to absorb different political identities into a rational consensus but attempts to accommodate difference temporarily precisely through deliberative confrontation. The assemblies in the Occupy movements are very confrontational as their participants hail from disparate political positions on the ideological spectrum, from the liberal to the anarchist. Discussions are both lively and intense. And yet, consensus is more than often reached precisely because they are allowed to confront each other politically and forced to reach temporary collective decisions – which may always be improved and modified in the future. This allows the assemblies to recognize what Mouffe calls the irreducible plurality of the social; they understand that we are all different politically, culturally and socially, and that difference cannot be absorbed by any idea of universal consensus.

Moreover, the ability of any participant to block a proposal forces the assembly to recognize and negotiate with minority views, an issue which most democratic orders systematically ignore and overrule. The consensus reached in the Occupy movements is therefore a contingent one: the product of temporary and negotiated discursive articulations and the child of an open, egalitarian and participatory democratic procedure. And these few facts alone, are truly breaking new ground within the field of political theory.


Habermas, J. 1996, Between Facts and Norms. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK

Hartnett, T. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making [online] Group Facilitation, available at http://www.groupfacilitation.net/Articles%20for%20Facilitators/The%20Basics%20of%20Consensus%20Decision%20Making.html

Mouffe, C. 2000, The Democratic Paradox. Verso:  Essex, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, On The Political. Routledge: Abingdon, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, Articulated Power Relations – Markus Miessen in conversation with Chantal Mouffe [online] available at: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/545

Seeds for Change, 2010 Consensus Decision Making. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/consensus

Seeds for Change, Making Decisions by Consensus. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/practicalconsensus.pdf

[2] Making decisions by consensus

[3] Hartnett, Tim. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making, http://www.grouopfacilitation.net

[4] Consensus decision Making seedsforchange.org.uk

[6] Consensus Decision Making, seedsforchange.org.uk p6

[7] Habermas 1996,  p119

[8] Habermas 1996,  p226

[9] Habermas 1996,  p304

[10] Mouffe 2000, 49

[11] Mouffe 2000, p46

[12] Mouffe 2005, p16

[13] Mouffe 2005, p31

[14] Mouffe interview


Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Habermas, Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

Pledges, Declarations and Constitutions

The Mobilization of Founding Documents as a Reassertion of American Identity


The Declaration of Independence

One of the constituent features of the Tea Party and its satellite movements consists in a strict allegiance to the founding documents and the founding moments that defined the United States of America as a sovereign and independent people. After all, the Tea Party movement names itself after the Boston Tea Party, the original act of dissent against tyranny and the symbolic assertion of American independence. Most recently, also the GOP has unveiled its own document A Pledge to America: a manifesto bristling with the rhetoric found in the Declaration of Independence and with the passion of the Spirit of ’76[1]. The founding documents are for the Tea Party (and like-minded conservatives) symbols which stand for limited government, individual rights, government by consent and economic freedom; and it is they, as a political movement, who claim to be the natural heirs to this political tradition. On the website teapartypatriots.com the mission statement asserts that:

“The Tea Party Patriots stand with our founders, as heirs to the republic, to claim our rights and duties which preserve their legacy and our own. We hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.”[2]


Photo by Sage Ross

Tea Party Protest, Hartford, Connecticut, 15 April 2009. Photo by Sage Ross


However, the reassertion and reinterpretation of the Founding Documents on behalf of the Tea Party is a symptom which betrays a far greater malaise: the perception of a loss of American identity. It is no coincidence that among the non negotiable core beliefs found on teaparty.org we find those of: “illegal aliens are here illegally, English as core language is required and traditional family values are encouraged.”[3] The Tea Party therefore stands for the reassertion of traditional American identity against an expanding government which seeks to redistribute the hard-earned wealth of middling Americans, which favors immigrants over business and which institutes socialized health-care at the expense of the tax payer. America has thus strayed off the enlightened path set by its Founding Fathers; it has lost both its telos and its ontos:  it is no more the “land of the free and home of the brave” and has thereby sacrificed its very liberty in the name of political correctness and equality. Only a reassertion of the Founding Documents will return America to its libertarian roots of self-determination, limited federal government, state-based governance and individual liberty.

Main Issues


We must however be critical of such a re-assertion of tradition and identity through the use of the Founding Documents. Are we sure that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence explicitly signify libertarian values? Could such documents point to alternative forms of government other than liberal democracy? And most importantly, does the Constitution truly represent the tenets of limited government and inalienable individual rights?

The Signing of the US Constitution

Between 1776 and 1787 the debate raging around the ratification of the Constitution pitted the Federalists (pro-Constitution) and the Antifederalists (against the Constitution) in a struggle that would eventually define what form the US government would take and what it would stand for. A close reading of the Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers will actually reveal that the Federalists (many of whom eventually became Founding Fathers by framing the Constitution) were in many cases arguing against the conception of government which the Tea Party attributes to them today: a small, limited, isolationist government which believes in the inviolability individual rights and free enterprise. Moreover, the ratification of the US Constitution was not universally seen in the 1780s as the national institutionalization of liberty and freedom; rather, it came to represented taxation, a standing army and a powerful and unaccountable executive – all issues which were fought against in the Revolution (Cornell 1999 p.53). The idea of a federal Constitution was repudiated by almost half of the American population, and was eventually ratified on very narrow margins[4] (Kramnick, 1987). On the other hand, the Antifederalists, whom championed the Articles of Confederation, argued for a more localist politics and against a federal government capable of coercively levying taxes on the fruit of the sovereign state’s labor (Cornell 1999, p.95).

I wish to explore three points here. Firstly, that the Tea Party is re-interpreting the Founding Documents (especially the Constitution) in a way which is not universally correct. By basing the legitimacy of their claim on a very specific interpretation of what the Constitution represents they are justifying the project of re-asserting a particular form of American identity which is not totalizing. Such a conceptualization would impose a negative interpretation of liberty thereby restricting any rights claims other than those on the libertarian agenda, and view as illegitimate any attempt of wealth redistribution or collective citizen action.

My second point consists in demonstrating that the Tea Party is not in fact the natural heir to the Founding Fathers as they resemble more (in many, but not all, aspects) the Antifederalists. However, if we look even deeper within the ideology of the Antifederalists we will discover a conceptualization of society which favored collective action, redistribution and which championed an egalitarian and leveling democracy – ideas which are not consonant with Tea Party ideology.

This leads me to my third point. As the Tea Party is caught between two very different political heritages (Federalist/Antifederalist) it cannot claim to represent any definitive embodiment of American Identity. Therefore the wielding of the Founding Documents as the weapons with which to “Restore Honor” (as Glenn Beck puts it) corresponds to a re-inscribing of what in semiotics is called a floating signifier. There is no historical legitimacy to the Tea Party: it is a popular movement which, like all others, tries to redefine the “We the people” through the mobilization of national symbols and other floating signifiers. As the Constitution has, under the liberal hegemony, become what Lacan calls a point de capiton (a symbol which manages to precariously anchor meaning into itself), the mobilization of this very symbol by the Tea Party betrays the instability of the liberal hegemony itself.

It therefore becomes clear that the Tea Party’s irreducible ideological contradictions are not merely a confused attempt to reinforce the supposedly founding principles of laissez faire capitalism and negative liberty against the encroachment of cultural relativism and redistribution imposed by the “progressive liberal elite”. Rather, it emerges as an angry backlash against those very principles which they claim to support. In other words the Tea Party, as the popular movement which defends liberalism, is in truth a movement which is angry at the shortcomings of liberalism itself.

What the Tea Party is demonstrating to the world is that the neo-liberal hegemony is no longer able to support and provide a coherent cultural, social, political and economic framework which successfully reflects the people’s life experiences. The disruptive and destructive forces  that globalized neo-liberalism has unleashed on the American middle class – the lowering of wages, outsourcing of jobs to third world countries, financial bubbles, higher health care costs, immigration, recession, etc… – have prompted the formation of a movement which has paradoxically become its most ardent supporter.

The Federalists and the Tea Party


It is interesting to see the diverging interpretations of what the Constitution represented at the time of its ratification and what it represents today. For the Tea Party, as we have mentioned, the Constitution embodies the principles of economic freedom, individual liberty and limited government. Along with the Bill of Rights it is the document which protects the individual from coercive taxation and any unlawful encroachment of federal power upon the private sphere. For an organization such as Let Freedom Ring, a constitutional government is one which promotes “the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution and limited (federal) government”[5]. Citing the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution has become for the Tea Party a symbol of resistance against the influence of the centralized federal government over the sovereignty of individual states: “we support states’ rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution. As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.”[6] Not only are politics to return closer to the States, but also closer to the citizen, as promoted by the initiative Contract FROM America which attempts to force Washington’s unaccountable politicians closer to their constituencies[7]. Finally, any attempt to presently interpret the constitution must be coherent with the original intent of the Founding Fathers – a movement termed originalist constitutionalism (Liptak 2010) which “believe[s] that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent.”[8]

But what was the original intent of the founders? And what did the Constitution represent to Americans in the 1780s? The socio-political panorama following the Declaration of Independence presented a loosely united confederation of independent and sovereign states which had the freedom to coin their own money, levy their own taxes and draft their own laws (Wood 1972, p354). They truly lived under libertarian principles and practiced a much more participatory model of democracy than that which exists today (Wood 1999). America under the Articles of Confederation was a place where politics occurred on a local level, where representatives mirrored their constituency and where the “politics of liberty” reigned supreme (Kramnick 1987). It was a place which any Tea Partier could call home.  Contrarily, Madison, Hamilton and Jay argued, in the Federalist Papers, for a new type of government where power was to be taken away from the states, farther removed from the locality, and placed in the hands of distant representatives who would take economic, military, judiciary, and legislative decisions on a national level far away from the will of the people (Kramnick 1987).

Alexander Hamilton

In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton seems often to argue against a conception of limited government. For Hamilton, America needed to become a nation-state able to compete internationally with the other European nation states of the time, and the federal government therefore required more power: the coercive power to legislate, direct commerce and wage war. Hamilton’s theory of state building is here not purely Lockean, but rather more Hobbesian and Machiavellian. In Federalist nos. 15, 16 and 17 Hamilton argues against state-based legislatures, equating them to bickering medieval feudal fiefdoms. Also Madison, as Isaac Kramnick points out, despised the “spirit of locality” fostered by state-centered politics, which advocated popular and parochial concerns (Kramnick, 1987). The new union of states was to have a standing army and a strong, decisive executive: “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government…The ingredients which constitute energy in the executive are unity; duration; and adequate provision for its support; and competent powers.”(Hamilton 1788, p402) In Federalist no. 72, Hamilton goes in so far as to argue for the President’s right to indefinite election.

Another point of view which seeks to dispel the notion that the Framers were not complete laissez faire capitalists is presented by Gordon S. Wood, whom points out that the Founding Fathers were more influenced by notions of civic humanism and classical republicanism than by Lockean liberalism. When the US population truly turned to commerce and completely embraced “free market logic” around the first two decades of the 1800s, Wood suggests that the remaining Founding Fathers, and particularly Jefferson, were appalled at the type of nation they had created: one which had given up virtue, secularism and civic morals for “speculation, banks, paper money and evangelical Christianity.”(Wood 1988)

Tea Party Protest

We are therefore presented with studies by authoritative historians which point out that the Founding Fathers were not in fact what the Tea Party makes them out to be today. For many Americans in the 1780s the Constitution represented exactly the opposite of what the tea party makes it out to be now. It was written by men who still believed in the “public good”, who still had not completely embraced the idea of America as a capitalist Mecca, whom believed in executive decisions and which actually made provisions for curbing the liberty that characterized America under the Articles of Confederation.

The Antifederalists and the Tea Party


A brief look into Antifederalist political philosophy will reveal striking similarities with that of the Tea Party. Amongst the main issues the Tea Party is concerned about are the erosion of American traditional values and the destructive forces immigration has on American culture. Tea Party supporters seem to be fighting for small, independent communities of hard-working (Christian) men and women: communities where the family represents the nucleus of social organization, and a place where interests, wealth and culture are relatively homogenous. The Tea Party nation is that of the common man, and, as Sarah Palin stated at the Tea Party National Convention:

“The soul of this movement is the people—everyday Americans who grow our food and run our small businesses, and teach our kids, and fight our wars. They’re folks in small towns and cities across this great nation who saw what was happening, and they saw, and they were concerned, and they got involved.”[9]

Similarly, the Antifederalists also championed a view of a local, homogenous community. Montesquieu had taught that republics could survive only in relatively small constituencies where wealth, ideas, ethnicity, religion and political views were similar (Cornell 1999, p86). Difference and factiousness were therefore destabilizing forces for such communities (as is immigration for the Tea Party today). The America of post 1776 was a country with a strong middle class constituted of farmers, mechanics, artisans, and small merchants, who were not yet integrated into a massive commercial system, but were tied to their locality, and therefore looked with suspicion on the plans of the elitist Federalists of instituting a federal government that could encroach on their freedom of enterprise(Wood 1972, p.46-47).

The same distrust for the intellectual elite was present in the Antifederalist camp as in the Tea Party today. The “out of touch” progressive elite of Washington and Hollywood that the Tea Party denounces today were the Federalists of the 1780s. Kramnick quotes an Antifederalist as stating that the Constitution wished to “raise the fortunes and respectability of the well born few, and oppress the plebeian” it was “a continental exertion of the well-born of America to obtain that darling domination which they have not yet been able to accomplish in their respective states” and would “lead to an aristocratical government and establish tyranny over us.” (cited in Kramnick 1987) This critique bears striking resemblance to a passage from the GOP’s recent Pledge to America: “An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.[10]

Shays Rebellion

Yet, at the same time, the Tea Party cannot claim to be direct heirs of the Antifederalists either. Popular Antifederalism believed in participatory democracy, civic virtue and radical egalitarianism. They were indeed very far from any conception of Lockean liberalism as championed by the Tea Party. They were so radical that they hardly even believed in the notion of separation of powers. For an Antifederalist who wrote under the pseudonym of Centinel, unicameralism was to be the only legitimate form of government, as the most important check on power was not another branch of government, but the people themselves (Cornell 1999, p106).  Plebian Antifederalism rejected the notion of representation altogether: it was the people who, through the sole legitimate institution of the plebiscite, would take decisions. As Kramnick demonstates “preferable for many Antifederalists was that there be no representatives, that, as Rousseau had envisioned, the people simply gather in public assembly and give themselves laws.”(Kramnick, 1987) Radical Antifederalist politics believed in crowd action, where the “common good” had the right, through the use of militias and mobs, to overrule both personal rights and private property (Cornell 1999, p114). Wood calls these movements the “People out of Doors”, people who felt so alienated by the landed gentry that they took matters into their own hands. Such popular movements eventually erupted in instances of violent dissent and calculated property destruction such as the Shay’s Rebellion of 1786 (Wood 1972, p325).

Founding Symbols as Floating Signifiers


US Constitution

What the Tea Party’s re-assertion of the Founding Heritage amounts to is an attempt to give meaning to what America is, it is trying to answer the age old question of, as Samuel Huntington put it, “who are we?”. It does so through the investing of meaning into the symbol of the Constitution. Therefore, in Sausserian terms, here the signifiers are Founding symbols, while the signifieds are Lockean Liberalism, laissez faire capitalism and other Libertarian values. According to Jacques Lacan, however, the relationship between signifiers and signifieds is never direct and explicit. As we have seen in our historical analysis the Constitution meant different things at different times and to different people. For Lacan, signifiers “slip” – it is impossible for them to “fix” meaning in a totalizing and universal way – therefore they continuously refer to another signifier in an ever ending chain of signification. However, Lacan admits the existence of what he calls points de capiton or nodal points: anchoring points which allows for “moments of stable signification.”(Homer 2005, p42)

The Founding symbols are here slipping or floating signifiers, which, at certain moments in American history, have become points de capiton: genuinely representing, legitimizing and justifying the dominant ideology, political framework and economic base. The contemporary instance of stable signification is what has come to be known as the liberal capitalist democracy: a particular regime justified by the enlightenment (and hence documents such as the Constitution) and which today has become hegemonic.However, this “stable moment of signification” is presently coming to an end. It simply does not provide enough meaning to legitimize precarious economies, terrorism, world-wide secessionist movements, environmental disasters, endless wars, democratic deficits and the climate crisis.

The theory of Ernesto Laclau here is key in analyzing the Tea party as a popular movment. Laclau’s notion of radical investment, informed by Lacan’s understanding of objet petit a, demonstrates how one particular political demand can come to represent the whole. In this case, the Tea Party is attempting to redefine the whole of American identity based on a minority’s identity (theirs): “From our founding, the Tea Party is the voice of the true owners of the United States, WE THE PEOPLE.”[11] Laclau demonstrates how the constitution of the “We the People” is an explicitly political project. For him: “radical investment means making an object the embodiment of a mythical fullness.” (Laclau 2005, p115) Through the radical investment of the Founding Symbols, the Tea Party attempts to claim as theirs the very mythical founding of the US republic.



What Laclau offers us therefore is the multiplication of a plurality of new points of resistance and alternatives to the status quo. Once we have understood that any conception of “We the People” is in truth not a universal and mythical aggregation of the wills, passions, backgrounds and inclinations of the population, but is an explicit political endeavor, the possibility for the claiming of that very same heritage is open to all. The Founding Fathers radically invested the basis of what was to be the federal government with a particular and narrow understanding which was not shared by the totality of the American people. The Tea Party attempts to do the same today with those same symbols. The work of Laclau and Mouffe liberate those symbols by demonstrating that they are political constructs, at which point they become available for use by potentially any political group. For example, Glenn Beck in his recent “Restoring Honor” rally held under the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. attempted to claim the narrative of slave liberation as part of the Tea Party’s heritage.

“What has been exploded is the idea and the reality itself of a unique space of constitution of the political.” (Laclau & Mouffe 1985, p181)

Politics can therefore be constituted within the very texts, signs and symbols which we use to give meaning to it:

“There is no meaning which is not over determined from its very inception.” (Laclau 2005, p115)

This, then, must be the building block of the new project of the left. At a moment in history where traditional narratives cease to “fix meaning”, when the liberal hegemony is wavering, here is the moment to reclaim that tradition and continue the democratic revolution that was “fixed” by the ratification of the constitution and by the supporters of a negative conception of liberty. The true heirs to the Constitution are therefore not (only) the Tea Party; rather, the liberated slaves, the emancipated women, gay and lesbians with rights, workers with a right to work in safe conditions and with a decent wage, children with the right to free and public education. These are the people who perpetuated and fought for the original legacy of the Founding Fathers: for the Constitution might embody individual rights, but it also represents the right of collective emancipation.


  • Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders : Anti-Federalism and the dissenting tradition in America, 1788-1828. Virginia : University of North Carolina Press, 1999
  • Homer, Sean. Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jacques Lacan. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 2005
  • Laclau, Ernesto & Mouffe, Chantal. Hegemony & socialist strategy : towards a radical democratic politics. London : Verso, 1985
  • Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. London: Verso, 2005
  • Levy, Leonard. W. Origins of the Bill of Rights. London : Yale University Press, 1999
  • Liptak, A., “Tea-ing Up the Constitution”, 12/03/2010, The New York Times
  • Madison, James; Hamilton, Alexander; Jay, John; edited by Kramnick, Isaac. The Federalist Papers. London : Penguin, 1987
  • Wood, Gordon S. 1988The Significance of the Early Republic Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 1-20
  • Wood, Gordon S. 1999 “Was America Born Capitalist?” The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 36-46
  • Wood, Gordon. S. The creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York : Norton, 1972

[1] http://pledge.gop.gov/

[2] http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Mission.aspx

[3] http://teaparty.org/about.php

[4] Kramnick, Isaac 1987 in Editor’s Introduction to the Federalist Papers

[5] http://www.letfreedomringusa.com/about

[6] http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Mission.aspx

[7] http://www.thecontract.org/support/

[8] http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Mission.aspx

[9] Palin, Sarah http://themoderatevoice.com/62060/sarah-palins-keynote-speech-at-national-tea-party-convention/

[10] http://pledge.gop.gov/

[11] http://teaparty.org/about.php

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Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Ernesto Laclau, Libertarianism, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

The Democratic Deficit, Crisis and Participatory Democracy

Why is Participation Important?

In the past decade, the theme of participation has increasingly gained more prominence within the fields of governance and development. It is being mainstreamed within the policy making process, in public planning and in public monitoring, slowly gaining legitimacy and taking a place as a viable alternative (or valuable contribution) to standard development and political paradigms. Simply put, participation entails the right of citizens to be included within decision-making processes.

However, we must still ask the question of why participation is important, or, perhaps a more pressing question is: why is participation necessary in the first place? Participation is necessary because the modes of thought, disciplines and institutions which have traditionally informed the fields of governance and development in the past century are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and accountability. Moreover, novel contingencies such as the ecological crisis, food insecurity and the global financial meltdown are putting such institutions under unprecedented levels of pressure. Participation is thus seen as a way to render existing institutions more accountable, transparent and efficient. Mainstreaming a re-invigorated conception of democratic citizenship within contemporary governance institutions is therefore the answer to the economic and political crisis of liberal democracies.

Some, however, would still raise the question: but is our present system that bad? Does it actually need to be re-conceptualized? Does the frightening word “participation” (which evokes the terror of Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty) be included within the discourse of a system which, after all, has generated wealth for many, defeated totalitarianisms, instituted countless democracies and defended human rights? One might detect here a hint of Fukuyama’s thesis and reach the conclusion that our system, namely the capitalist liberal democracy, is not perfect but it’s the best system we have (as put by Churchill), and that giving it sufficient time to fix its present problems is better than risking a “citizen revolution” (see Ecuador) that could spiral out of control and into a totalitarian regime thereby losing our sacrosanct individual rights.

It is exactly these questions and deductions which we must contest by demonstrating that this system really is in a serious crisis, and that time is running out. I therefore agree with Zizek’s statement of how liberalism died twice at the dawn of the 21st century: knocked out firstly by the jab of 9-11 and secondly by the hook of the financial meltdown (Zizek 2009). To this we must add the utter failure of developed and developing nation’s governments of reaching any form of meaningful agreement aimed at halting global warming and dealing with the looming ecological crisis.

Yet, the problems are not only to be found in the realm of power politics and political economy. The root cause of crisis, I believe, resides not in a “mismanagement” of the political and economic institutions of the system per se, but in the very epistemological framework which upholds the system and its institutions in the first place; and, taking it a step further, in the symbolic framework within which democracy is exercised (Mouffe 2001). Fixing the system would therefore require us to challenge the very notions of what a democratic regime actually is. Without a radical challenge and critique of these notions, proposing alternatives becomes impossible, for the simple fact that they would build upon the faulty foundations of a system whose alleged “sustainability” is inscribed within the logics of crisis.

The Democratic Deficit

In the past decade there has been a growing consensus regarding the democratic deficit affecting the liberal representative democratic model. This is often referred to as a crisis of accountability, a crisis of legitimacy and a general loss of trust in political representatives and in democratic institutions (Cornwall 2001). Robert A. Dahl points out that citizen confidence in democratic institutions of the trilateral democracies (North America, Europe and Japan) has rapidly declined since the 1980s. Although citizens still believe in democracy as the appropriate model of governance there is a widespread feeling that key democratic institutions are increasingly removed from and unaccountable to the citizen. (Dahl 2000)

In the U.S.A., Theda Skocpol denounces the loss of civic political participation in government as a cause for the grave contemporary democratic deficit. For her, the loss of the Tocquevillian characteristics of civic association which had nurtured U.S.A. democracy in the past have been replaced by a conception of the citizen understood as a consumer rather than a member of society. As a result “early twenty-first-century Americans live in a diminished democracy, in a much less participatory and more oligarchicly managed civic world.”(Skocpol 2003)

Gaventa and Cornwall point out that within the context of the blurring of the lines between state, civil society and market actors we are experiencing a serious crisis of accountability. As responsibilities are transferred from the state to NGOs and the private sector the question of who is accountable to who for the provision of vital public services (particularly in the developing world) remains unanswered, therefore potentially threatening citizen and human rights (Cornwall 2001). This has contributed to a “greater crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the democratic institutions affecting their lives”. (Gaventa 2006)

Finally, in Voices of the Poor, a World Bank report by Narayan et al., surveys conducted on tens of thousands of people in the global south reveal that the poor of the world perceive a serious crisis in governance and are experiencing a growing loss of trust in domestic and international governance institutions. (Narayan 2000)

The Cause of the Deficit

We are, however, in need of a critique of the very foundations of the liberal model in order to explain the above mentioned loss of accountability, legitimacy and trust our democratic institutions are currently experiencing. We can find such a critique in the work by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Their most important contribution to our discussion lies in challenging the notion that democratic subjects possess an a priori identity. Liberalism attributes to the individual a conception of subjectivity which is inherent, objective, inalienable, which exists universally and is not created nor influenced by culture or society: humans are rational individuals before they are members of society. This particular articulation of identity is one of the root causes of why liberal democracy is now in crisis and cannot address the issue of the continuous alienation of the citizen from the sphere of decision making:

“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 individuals as prior to society, bearers of natural rights, and either utility maximizing agents or rational subjects.” (Mouffe, 2000)

For Laclau and Mouffe, the liberal conception of the nature of man is limited, and its acceptance (and at times imposition) defeats one of democracy’s main tenets: pluralism. The hegemony of the individualist framework precludes the possibility of existence of different forms of identification, namely a more communitarian one. If democracy is the realm of contestation amongst a plurality of different demands, identities, ideology etc. (legitimized by our inalienable right to freedom of expression) then the acceptance of only one form of identification defeats democracy’s purpose in the first place. Democracy, therefore, is the very terrain in which identification is constructed and articulated.

In this way, the cause of the democratic deficit resides in the crisis of the very individualist paradigm which has shaped, molded and informed democracy as we know it today. The tension between the conception of a rational individual and new (and potentially dangerous) forms of identification such as ethnic, fundamentalist, nationalist or religious ones are putting liberalism under incredible amounts of stress.

It is here that the dimension of participation enters the discourse of democratic theory. Participation, informed by radical plural democracy, embraces the moment of democratic contestation and condemns attempts at defining once and for all democracy’s ultimate nature. For Laclau and Mouffe, the very act of naming and defining what the terms democracy, liberty, equality or justice entail (these being prime examples of empty and floating signifiers) always involve an act of exclusion. Therefore the only legitimate democratic framework would be one which would consider the continuous contestation between different ideals to be the most “just” expression of democratic exercise rather than trying to fix meaning once and for all. Hence participatory democracy’s stress on inclusion, extension of rights and extension of citizenship so that the moment of contestation can be nurtured by as many different forms of identification and demands as possible. We will return to the specifics and consequences of participatory democracy later.

A Reflection

We must however still ask a paramount question: if liberalism is not delivering its promise for a bright new democratic future and the pursuit of happiness for all, then why are we not able change system? Why do we still consent? Zizek is right in pointing out the fact that we were able to mobilize billions of dollars of tax-payer money in the matter of hours in order to fix a financial system which is still dependent on booms and busts, yet we are unable to face up to the environmental crisis or world hunger (problems created by the inherent contradictions of the financial system in the first place).

The root of our consent lies in our total unconscious acceptance of the individualist paradigm with its strongest component being the inseparable binomial: individual freedom-free markets; and that is why, deep down in all of us, we thought it necessary to save a faltering capitalist order rather than seizing the opportunity to create meaningful and sustainable change. Within the liberal collective unconscious, changing or reforming free markets equates to giving up individual freedom.

In its struggle to emancipate itself from the yoke of tyranny (namely through the historical sequence: enlightenment-II WW-fall of the soviet bloc), I believe the West has lost its ability to confront problems collectively. Liberation discourse, in its purest sense, has effectively freed the individual from all external influence exerted on it. And free we are indeed, yet the process of liberation from government, from collective responsibility, from tyranny, etc. has left us, well, with nothing. We are free from all constraints: the individual has been emancipated and is autonomous…but what is he or she left with? This is probably one of the most important cruxes at the heart of the liberal crisis. All the individual creativity, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (actions which are possible only because of  the individual’s autonomy from the collective) cannot ever dream of dealing with the financial meltdown or the environmental crisis for the simple reason that individual action cannot resolve problems which are global. So what are we missing? What have we lost in our glorious pursuit of freedom? I believe we have quite simply lost the “we”.

The key point here is to realize that the crisis we are experiencing now is a collective crisis: it is affecting all of humankind across cultures, classes and continents. The crisis has not been caused by individual irresponsibility nor can it be fixed by virtuous individual behavior. Our unsustainable system can be transcended solely if it is understood that the problem is rooted in a “we” and not in fact in an “I”.

The answer, however, does not lie in the institution of a “we” as a tree-hugging “global village” where brown, yellow, and white children hold hands in a circle and sing “we are the world”. Nor does it lie, as Marxists and radical Libertarians alike see it, in freeing the “we” through the (violent) removal of a conspiratorial corporate elite which “puppeteers” the politico-economical infrastructure. The radical dimension of recognizing the “we” allows us to detect that the root of the problem lies in our consent to the liberal order, and, more specifically, in our consent to the symbolic, ontological and teleological dimensions of liberalism.

On Participation and Plurality

So we return to our initial question: why is participation important? Participation, in the terms proposed to us by the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, is important because it is not presented as a panacea. Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism have been presented as paradigms with which to achieve a “just society”, yet we have witnessed the disastrous consequences that all three ideologies have had on the past century. The relativist point here is that there is no panacea in the first place, and that the heart of democracy lies exactly in the confrontation amongst different interpretations of what constitutes the “we” in democracy. Recognizing the moment of contestation between differing demands is realizing the radical plural dimension of democracy. Especially in Laclau’s most recent work, it is increasingly clear that it is the very act of contestation (antagonism) and alliance building (equivalential chains) which produces subjectivity, identification and ultimately a hegemonic order (popular identities) (Laclau 2004). Denying healthy confrontation through the imposition of one “objective” and “universal” form of identification is dangerous.

Therefore we must resist saturating democratic theory solely with notions of representation, the rule of law and consensus building, and understand that extending rights and citizenship coupled with the inclusion of citizens within the decision making process is at the heart of democratic theory and can begin to provide alternative venues through which we can begin to solve our collective problems and reduce global injustices. Participatory democracy is therefore a perpetual process of democratic contestation which must provide a venue for all, and include all in democratic deliberation and contestation alike.

“And the fact that this must be envisaged as an unending process should not be cause for despair because the desire to reach a final destination can only lead to the elimination of the political and the destruction of democracy.” (Mouffe, 2000)

“It is only when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality.” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1989)


Cornwall, A. Gaventa, J. (2001) “Bridging the Gap: Citizenship, Participation and Accountability” In PLA Notes No. 40: 32-35. International Institute for Environment and Development

Dahl, R. (2000) “A Democratic Paradox?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 1 PP. 35-40

Gaventa, J. (2006) “Triumph, Deficit or Contestation? Deepening the “Deepening Democracy” Debate”. IDS Working Paper 267. Institute of Development Studies

Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. Verso

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Verso

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. Verso

Narayan, D. et all (2000) Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change. Washington, DC. World Bank

Skocpol, T. (2003) Diminished Democracy: from membership to management in American civil life. University of Oklahoma Press

Zizek, S. (2009) First as Tragedy, then as Farce. Verso

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Filed under democracy, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Participatory Democracy, political theory, post-structuralism