03/02/2010 16:58

On the Significance of Disagreement in Politics

Marianne LeNabat
The New School for Social Research

On the Significance of Disagreement in Politics

The significance of disagreement is both over- and underestimated in theorizations of politics. It is underestimated by Karl Marx, for example, for whom the universal class will simply carry history forward to a post-political utopia – a stateless society sans disagreement, in any interesting sense. It is likewise underestimated by Marx’s contemporary legatee Slavoj Zizek, who frequently upholds, as a political model, Hugo Chavez’s seizure of state power in Venezuela, without much attention to the more difficult process of collective decision-making, across competing interests, in a fragile democracy.

Meanwhile, disagreement is overestimated by “conservative” thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, whose preoccupying fear of a “war of all against all” leads him to attempt to eliminate (or overwhelm) individual disagreements through the installation of an all-powerful sovereign who will adjudicate all disputes and hold every subject in awe. And likewise it is underestimated by his theoretical descendant Carl Schmitt, for whom politics just is the (even arbitrary) identification of friends and enemies, underwritten by a willingness to annihilate those opponents… thus, once again, putting a very final end to disagreement.

My paper will attempt to delineate the appropriate scope and role of disagreement in politics. Drawing upon the agonist theories of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, I will argue that conflict is a crucially ineliminable aspect of politics. Mouffe and Laclau reject the Marxian notion of a universal political agent, instead arguing, with an eye to the New Social Movements, that competing political claims are irreducible to one another, and none of them valid or invalid a priori. The goal of politics, for them, is not to overcome disagreement, but to dignify it appropriately by creating the kind of environment and institutions in which competing claims can be appropriately recognized and competing interests arbitrated, such that the stakes of resolution are no longer the mere annihilation of one’s opponent (literally or politically). They thereby oppose the kind of violent and fractious “enemization” that Schmitt describes as the very soul of politics.

Ultimately, however, I will argue against Mouffe and Laclau that disagreement only arises in an antecedently-constituted society or community – one whose foundations or origins are not in disagreement but in solidarity. To put the point bluntly, we disagree with those with whom we have a common bond and concern. Politics may indeed involve conflict, but it takes place in a literally and symbolically shared space, a space where some collective identity is recognized (an Arendtian “we,” a Heideggerian being-with), and where it is understood that the outcome of decisions – their effect – is shared. In other words, there is a fundamental difference between the negotiations that take place between two opposed parties (states, for example), where ultimately disagreements are resolved through the use or threat of force (precisely Schmitt’s point) – and the negotiations that take place within a community. In the latter case, the question of force or violence is also present, but in a different sense, or within different parameters: the use of force in such a situation in entirely problematic because it jeopardizes the integrity of the community as well as one’s standing in it. It is, as Arendt would point out, the cessation or suspension of politics, not a form of it. One cannot simply forsake the rest of the community if one’s demands are not met, and if those with whom one is negotiating are also those upon whom we depend.

This point – that the basis of politics (disagreement) differs from the basis of the community in which it unfolds (solidarity) – is almost never acknowledged in theoretical political literature, including that coming from both the right and the left. Until it is, the real role of conflict in politics will be misrecognized.