Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Between Deliberation and Agonism: Rethinking conflict and its relation to law in political philosophy

The Institute for Philosophy at Leiden University is host to the NWO programme, "Between Deliberation and Agonism: Rethinking Conflict and its Relation to Law in Political Philosophy".

Herman Siemens

Problem and Aim

Contemporary political philosophy is caught in an impasse. On one side, deliberative and liberal theories of democracy emphasise the rule of law, rational deliberation and procedures to guarantee equality and freedom for all. Agonistic theories, by contrast, highlight the exclusionary effects of any legal order and the unpredictability of political agency. Above all, they insist that democratic politics is essentially conflict, struggle or agon – a term derived from the ancient Greek contest. In the current climate, we are forced to choose between two competing visions of democracy: as public deliberation based on or oriented to consensus – or as dissensus and incessant contestation of all political settlements.

But these are false alternatives. Both deliberative and agonistic theories pick out important aspects of democratic politics (rule of law, conflict and contingency; deliberation, dissensus; universal principles, remainders), but neither is sufficient on its own. How can the antagonism between them be turned into a productive engagement that contributes more to our understanding of real-life politics? This programme aims to break the deadlock and bring the debate forward by rethinking the relation between antagonism, agonism and law. Must conflict and the rule of law be mutually exclusive – or are constructive relations between (certain kinds of) conflict and law possible, even necessary for a vibrant democracy?

To break the deadlock between agonistic and deliberative democrats, we need to re-examine its theoretical roots in their underlying conceptions of conflict, power and law. In this programme, the theoretical roots of the current impasse will be examined by investigating its historical roots in the ancestors of contemporary agonistic and deliberative theories, Nietzsche and Kant, and their far richer and more rigorous reflections on conflict and law. Our working hypothesis is that Nietzsche and Kant offer invaluable, untapped resources for rethinking conflict, power and law, with critical and corrective implications for the current stalemate in democratic theory. Accordingly, our approach is three-fold.

Theoretical Approach

Core project 1

The core project 1 engages current political theories directly. Focusing on the relation between political subjects and law, it aims to develop a typology of modes of political engagement that draws on both deliberative and agonistic theories but is more systematic and comprehensive than either. In specific, it aims to take seriously both the law’s claim to normativity (central to deliberative accounts) and the diversity and antagonisms of actually-lived lives (to which agonists are particularly sensitive). For this it will also draw on the conceptions of conflict, power, and law developed in the two historical projects:

Project 2

Nietzsche is commonly taken to be a destructive, nihilistic thinker with proto-fascist leanings. But this image is belied by the extensive constructive appropriations of his thought by agonistic theorists of democracy. None of them, however, make full or adequate use of the constructive resources in his thought for rethinking conflict and its relations to law. For Nietzsche, struggle and opposition are constitutive of power-relations at all levels of reality or life, and he devotes his thought to a precise and differentiated understanding of the plurality of conflict-types, their divergent qualities and effects. Efforts to ‘resolve’ conflict by reducing tension forfeit the productive powers of tension, and Nietzsche concentrates instead on the qualitative transformation of destructive, violent antagonisms into measured productive agonisms.

Nietzsche’s agonal model of conflict is the source, direct or indirect, for current agonistic theories. Yet they fail to situate his concept of the agon in the broader context of his ontology of conflict or to consider the complex, multiple relations between different types of conflict and law in his thought (Siemens 2010). In line with our working hypothesis this project investigates Nietzsche’s philosophy of conflict with an eye on its corrective implications for contemporary agonism. Through a systematic study of Nietzsche’s philosophical vocabulary of conflict, project 2 aims to develop a Nietzschean typology of modes of conflict. This typology will serve as a systematic framework for testing current agonistic theories, but also the typology of modes of political engagement developed in project 1.

Project 3

The impasse between deliberative and agonistic theories of democracy is replicated at the level of global politics and contemporary theories of cosmopolitanism. It is played out, for example, in the divide between Rawls’s cosmopolitanism (1993), emphasising universal principles and the rule of law, and Mouffe’s agonistic vision of a cosmopolitan pluriverse of regional powers (2005). Project 3 tackles the question of conflict and its relation to law at the level of global politics: Can ‘the rule of cosmopolitan law’ coexist with social and political antagonisms? Does ‘perpetual’ cosmopolitan peace, in excluding armed conflict, exclude all forms of conflict – or are there productive forms of conflict that are needed for human flourishing on a global scale?

If Nietzsche is the ‘father’ of contemporary agonism, Kant is the father of mainstream cosmopolitanisms. Yet they fail to appreciate the central, albeit equivocal place of conflict in Kant’s political thought. In line with our working hypothesis this project re-examines the theoretical roots of the current impasse in cosmopolitan theory by studying its historical roots in Kant and Nietzsche. For Kant, social antagonism or ‘unsocial sociability’ plays a crucial role in the realisation of human capacities and the historical progress towards a cosmopolitan world order. But its status and value in that order – under ‘the rule of cosmopolitan law’ – is less clear. If, as both Kant and Nietzsche believe, antagonism is indispensable for human flourishing, then it should figure also in a cosmopolitan world order oriented towards human flourishing. Yet the constructive role of conflict remains under-theorised by Kant and his contemporary successors. Drawing on Nietzsche’s philosophy of conflict and the typology of project 2, this project asks: What place should be given to antagonism in cosmopolitan theory, and to which forms of antagonism?

Synthesising monograph

The results of the core project on contemporary political philosophy and the two historical projects on Nietzsche and Kant will be integrated by the applicant in a synthesising monograph: Between Deliberation and Agonism: Rethinking Conflict and its Relation to Law. Its purpose will be to stimulate a constructive dialogue between agonistic and deliberative theorists. Its success or failure to do so will in effect test our working hypothesis that Kant and Nietzsche offer creative resources for rethinking conflict in relation to law in ways that overcome the current impasse.

Connection with other research