Democracy at The End of History

There is a philosophical problematic — which runs from Hegel, to Marx, to Post-Marxists like Chantal Mouffe — about the status of social conflict ‘after the revolution,’ as it were. As Todd McGowan argues, those who position Hegel as offering a theodicy of rationality — in which the progression of social forms culminate in an Absolute end, immune to further contradiction — precisely invert the correct notion of the Absolute for Hegel: not the final resolution of conflict, but it’s intractability; a reconciliation with perennial self-division and the refusal of stable authorities. Marx’s attempt to posit a positive Other in the form of proletarian revolution, singularly capable of ushering in a harmonious society, thus represents a ‘rightward deviation’ from Hegel, one that ended up justifying a brutal totalitarian regime. McGowan’s Hegel here is almost postmodern in his insistence on the continual play of contradiction (but note, crucially, the presence of this term over ‘difference’), and fits relatively agreeably with Mouffe’s conception of the political as constituted by ‘irreconcilable difference.’ The Liberal-technocractic valorisation of ‘rational consensus’ is displaced by what Mouffe terms ‘agonistics.’ (The shift from antagonist to agonist, from which the term generalises, is motivated by a concession to the basic humanitarian premise of liberal-democracy — and thus a move away from Schmitt — that one’s opponents are legitimate opponents, rather than enemies to be exterminated). Conflict, division, contradiction will always persist; social forms will develop, regress, transform; and politics is just the name given to the way such forces are continually negotiated.

I think this is largely correct: attempts to conceptualise a final social form capable of perfect unification of its participants, and resolute resistance to change, is a hubris that overestimates human capacities for rationality vis a vis value-pluralism, unintended consequences, and historical flux. Dewey is right in this respect: just as thought forms are always provisional and fallible ways of working through contextual problems, social forms are too. Nonetheless, I think there remains something to Marx’s insistence on some kind of harmony, on some kind of eclipsing of systemic crises and antagonism.

To explore this, let us turn to Mouffe. The positive content of Mouffe’s theory consists in a kind of radical democracy which enables the unencumbered pursuit of agonisms, although she never really devotes much time to mapping its institutional structure. In any case, she insists that, contra Marx, this is not a society free of conflict and division but one that takes this as its basic form, that channels it rather than suppressing it. Indeed, her concern with neoliberalism is precisely that, by retrenching democratic control over the economy, and naturalising class-hierarchisation under the immovable tides of ‘globalisation’, it suppresses these agonisms to the point of explosion, hence the growth of left and right wing populisms in the past twenty years as the ‘return of the political’, of which the latter may threaten the basic premises of liberalism and thus degenerate agonism into antagonism.

There are, however, a couple elements of Mouffe’s theory here which have always remained decidedly unclear to me. First, is it not the case that a proper democratisation of society, a proper play of agonisms, would require not just the resumption of social-democratic distributive conflicts and that kind of electoral politicisation of the economy, but, rather, its revolutionary socialisation? The core political fact of capitalism is that it is a system of economic domination, that the social power held by capital is a kind of ‘dictatorship of the producers’ that posits one singular value-form on society (accumulation) and blocks subordinate agents’ attempts to challenge it. But the dissolution of capital as a social class required for agonistics would then render them neither agonist nor antagonist: neither agonist, because once capital is socialised there just is no longer a social category of capitalists who could be an interlocutor in radical-democratic deliberation; and, more strongly, because the presence of a properly radical-democratic structure would presuppose their abolition, since their existence is the negation of free play of agonisms. And neither antagonist, because — apart from the real possibility of violent revolutionary skirmishes — the abolition of capital is not synonymous with their biologistic extermination. When Keynes says ‘euthanize the rentier’, it is the social relation to whom it shall be administered. This means that capital — which here is a stand in for ‘system of domination’ — then becomes a kind of constitutive Other that is not permitted into agonistics as a condition of its very existence.

Second, in discussing capital in this way, we should be able to also identify two different kinds of ‘irreconcilable difference’, the distinction between which is also too easily elided by Mouffe. The irreconcilable difference between capital and labour is not the same as that between agents who disagree over the relative value of equality or tradition, or between unionised plumbers and stay-at-home mothers. The former is borne from fundamentally counter-positional social-interests, what E.O. Wright termed the ‘inverse interdependent welfare principle’ of exploitation, such that the only possible ‘reconciliation’ could be in abolishing the social conditions which generate that contradiction. But even here, one could imagine other arrangements that coincide with this principle — in the democratic provision of water-services, more money to unionized workers is less to consumers — so there must be something else. That something else, of course, is that while in the democratic provision of water-services, those counter-positioned agents can collectively negotiate this tension (without presuming that we are ever going to reach a proper consensus in which everyone is perfectly pleased with the result, and that, insofar as people opposed it, it came from a deficit in their ‘rationality’) and come to partial and provisional resolution, capital — as a system of domination — prohibits this negotiation. What makes it irreconcilable, therefore, is not that it is a particularly sharpened opposition or systemically rooted per se, but that it’s systemic rooting as a system of domination literally prevents attempts at reconciliation. If the rule of capital represents the reified superiority of accumulation as societies monovalue, then radical-democracy would consist simply in the ability to displace this value and compare it with the merit or others (which would, I imagine, often coincide with its jettisoning from the conversation as inappropriate).

What I hope to have done in the course of the preceding discussion is to inaugurate a fundamental distinction between pathological conflict and non-pathological or fluid conflict. Capitalism is a system defined by pathological conflict, because these conflicts are those which take place within an ‘asymmetrically fixed’ (Foucault) structure of power. As opposed to fluid conflict — in which plastic and pluralist radical-democratic relations facilitate the negotiation of differences and changes in the social structure as temporary resolutions of tensions and problems — pathological conflict occurs because there are systemic mechanisms (of domination) which repress grievances and oppositions. The society after the revolution will still be society — that is, it will still be a provisional attempt to deal with the flux and problems thrown up by transindividual existence — but it will be one that has, with Hegel, grasped this as the Absolute truth of existence. The free state is thus the state that has institutionalised the capacity to (re)construct our forms of life effectively in response to external and internal problems that give lie to the self-identity of social forms. The end of history then just becomes the accurate apprehension of history.

We should, finally, read Marx’s suggestion that communism is free of contradiction in this light. As W.C. Roberts and others have shown, Marx considers capitalism primarily as a system of domination, such that the resolution of its contradictions would then not spell the end of social conflict, but its proper expression and pragmatic collision. When Marx says, for instance, that the ‘social republic’ sheds it’s ‘political character,’ he is not effacing deliberation and agonistics. Rather, ‘politics’ in Marx’s terminology expresses ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’, while ‘debate, deliberation, and disagreement […] are aspects of social life’ (Roberts, 2017: 253). What we have here, then, is the transformation of pathological conflict — asymmetrically repressed ‘under the cover of legal forms’ and ‘force of arms’ (Marx, 1867)— into fluid conflict, the latter expressing humanities ‘true ground’ (Marx, 1843). To speak with Marcuse (1970: 62), utopia is not a ‘society without conflicts’, but ‘a society in which conflicts evidently exist but can be resolved without oppression and cruelty.’

21, studying Political Theory and Sociology at Cambridge University