...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Chantal Mouffe

In Politics, Theory on April 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Friday 12 November, 2010

Liverpool Biennial Visitor Centre, Liverpool

Heavy rain and cultural theory go hand in hand.  Especially on a Friday night.  In Liverpool.  With free wine.

We had gathered in the Biennial Centre on Renshaw St to hear Chantal Mouffe and Mark Sealy speak.

Chantal Mouffe is a luminary of the left, a political theorist who was involved in the May ’68 protests and is most famous for formulating a theory of democratic ‘agonism’ with Ernesto Laclau.  Mark Sealy is the director of a charity that educates the public in photography and curator of many different exhibitions throughout his career, with a particular interest in identity and identity politics.

After a short introduction from Alfredo Jaar, Chantal Mouffe came on stage.  From the warmth of her reception, it seemed that most people were here primarily to hear her.  This good will was further amplified by the fact that she could not see over the lectern, and so had to ask for it to be replaced a step lower than her.  Diminutive, yes.  But unfazed.

She broke her talk down into the three parts; starting with a précis of the current state of the left in Europe, followed by her thoughts on how it could make steps to move forward, before finishing with how art could contribute to this.

The picture she painted of today’s left was appropriately disheartening, and yet not quite something I recognised.  She described a movement which had given up on working through conventional channels, such as parties, unions, etc, and was now advocating self-organisation.   To me, this sounded like mutualism or even anarchism, i.e. a branch of the left.  Has this become the dominant force on the left?  I don’t believe it has.

However, she did make some more accurate, and more interesting observations.  One of these was that the left was no longer appealing to what she called the ‘passion,’ or the ‘affect’ of the general public.  Nor was the centre, and nor was the right.  In fact, in her estimation, it was only the far right that was doing so.  Only they were able to mobilise this mysterious passion of which she spoke, and the left must think of ways to do so too.  She did not go into the specifics of how this might be done, and this lack of flesh on the elegant bones of her theorising became a frustrating theme.

The far right appeals to people through oversimplification and demagoguery, as well as having the advantage of only wanting to appeal to a small and homogenous group.  The left and the centre parties are somewhat hindered by their desire to appeal to a larger and more heterogeneous group.  The message therefore becomes either atomised or vague.  Or both.  So how does one appeal to the ‘passion’ of the people?  Mouffe did not offer anything more concrete.

In discussing how the left might move forward, she outlined her theory of ‘agonism,’ as compared to ‘antagonism’ and ‘competition.’  She described the antagonist model as that of revolution, i.e. wanting to destroy the current order to rebuild a new one.  She offered Lenin and the Jacobins as examples of this approach.  Her example for the competitive model was New Labour, and the ‘third way’ of the 90s.  Frankly, her description of how the left had been subsumed and therefore ultimately defeated by neo-liberalism, and in particular how the architects of New Labour had contributed to this, was right on the money (pun intended).

In the agonist model, the aim was neither to accept the prevailing system, nor to destroy it.  The aim was to disarticulate the structures through which the authorities effected their hegemony, and re-articulate them with a new alignment, new priorities, new goals.  Again, elegant theory without the ugliness of practical suggestions or specifics.  A what, but no how.

Finally she discussed how art might contribute to this.  Here her theorising was more palatable and less frustrating.  And her ability to offer sharp analysis remained; in particular her observation that art need not be ugly to be subversive.  Beauty need not be the betrayal of truth, and nor should it be understood as such.

So eloquent analysis, and elegant theory.  While I felt somewhat more edified for having listened to Mouffe, I did not feel any more ready or better equipped to tackle inequality.

Perhaps we should not be looking to her for specifics.  Perhaps we should not be looking to her for practical ideas.  Perhaps it is easy to criticise her, and perhaps in so doing we are actually abdicating our own responsibility to take on her ideas, analyse them and use our own imaginations to formulate our own ideas.  But if we do not look to our intellectuals for ideas, the very intellectuals who are able to offer such clear understanding of our times and circumstances, then to whom shall we look?  Of course, we must continue to formulate our own ideas, but I do not feel it is unfair to expect more from Mouffe too.


  1. I wrote the above article in November of last year. Clearly, I was confused by Mouffe’s references to a self-organising left, and frustrated by her opaque references to ‘disarticulation’ and ‘rearticulation.’

    Since then, we have had Tory blitzkrieg followed by student protests, UKUncut and the radicalisation of a large portion of the youth of the country at least in part through new media. What we are seeing is exactly that which she spoke of – a self-organising left which is seeking to make an impact not through conventional channels, but through new avenues.

    We are seeing democracy become three-dimensional, with the left seeking to be heard not only through elections, but also through direct action. The challenge to the imagination at which I failed when I initially wrote the article has been taken up by others, and they are arousing a new generation to social and political awareness and empowerment.

    Long may it continue.

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