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P O L ITICS: 2003 VO L 23(1), 5765

What is Politics? The Approach of

Radical Pluralism
Mark Anthony Wenman1
Staffordshire University

In this article I evaluate the conceptions of politics and of the political characteristic of radical
pluralism. I argue that in order to comprehend the radically pluralist conception of politics it is
necessary to grasp the post-structuralist critique of the philosophical principle of identity. The
concern with the interface between politics and ethics which is typical of the radical pluralist
approach is also explored. Throughout the article contrast is made with the conventional pluralism of American political science. I conclude with a consideration of the importance of radical
pluralism, with reference to the difficulties this may present for the methods and suppositions of
political science traditionally understood.

Over the past few years this journal has facilitated a debate about the nature and
scope of politics. The discussion commenced with an intervention by Alan
Finlayson and James Martin in 1997 (17(3)), which met with a response from
Robin Brown in 1998 (18(3)). The gauntlet was taken up again by Tony Burns in
2000 (20(2)). In this article I seek to contribute to this dispute by introducing the
reflections on politics and the political characteristic of radical pluralism. Radical
pluralism is the most appropriate term to differentiate a series of texts published
during the past decade and a half. These include Connolly (1995a), Keane (1988),
Laclau and Mouffe (1985), Mouffe (1993b), Mouffe (2000), and Young (1990).
These theorists develop contrasting accounts of politics (see for example Mouffes
critique of Young: Mouffe, 1993b, pp. 8586). However, for my current purposes
the similarities are more significant than the differences. Each of these theorists
has developed conceptions of politics guided by the philosophical insights of poststructuralism. The work of William Connolly and of Chantal Mouffe is exemplary
of the approach of radical pluralism: the ideas of these authors will provide the
main sources of reference here. In order to grasp the conception of politics
advanced by radical pluralists, it will be helpful to juxtapose this to the approach
of conventional pluralism.

Conventional pluralism and the nature

and scope of politics
The pluralism of American political science has been massively influential in
shaping the analysis of politics in the twentieth century. Although pluralist ideas
and methods have been very widespread, it is possible to outline the pluralist
conception of politics drawing from a handful of key texts. These are: Bentley
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(1908), Dahl (1961), Dahl and Lindblom (1976 [1953]), Polsby (1963), and
Truman (1962). As the titles of these books indicate, the pluralism of American
political science equates politics with procedure: with the process of government.
The most celebrated of these texts Robert Dahls Who Governs? explores the decision-making process in New Haven, Connecticut. Dahl examines different issue
areas in which important public decisions are made (Dahl, 1961, p. 64). For the
conventional pluralist this is the material of politics.
The theoretical suppositions of conventional pluralism are perhaps best laid out in
Polsby (1963) and Truman (1962). Politics is conceived as competition between
a plurality of organised interest groups or pressure groups to influence the
outcome of executive decisions (Polsby, 1963, pp. 118 and 121; Truman, 1962,
p. vii). These interested groups are conceived as coalitions of citizens that
have shared attitudes towards particular prevailing issues (Polsby, 1963, p. 115;
Truman, 1962, p. 33). It is important to note that political competition is presumed
to take place between social entities interest groups whose identity is taken as
given. The actual constitution of the identity of these social groupings is of no
concern to the student of politics. This is effectively excluded from the arena of
politics, and is explained as the inevitable outcome of the individuals capacity for
rational action (Polsby, 1963, p. 120). It should also be noted that political competition is understood to take place within certain rules of the game (Truman,
1962, p. 507). These are also treated as given, and therefore beyond the scope of
political adjudication.
Criticisms of conventional pluralism are well known. In response to the pluralist
approach Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz identified the second face of power:
i.e. the power to decide which issues are excluded from or included within the
decision-making agenda (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 948). Following this,
Steven Lukes emphasised the three-dimensional view of power: i.e. the power to
shape peoples actual preferences (Lukes, 1974, p. 24). Both of these ripostes represent attempts to extend the dimension of politics. Some conventional pluralists
have responded to these criticisms. Commentators now refer variously to
reformed pluralism, to neo pluralism, and to elite pluralism (Dunleavy and
OLeary, 1987, pp. 271318; Manley, 1983, pp. 368393; Marsh, 1995, pp.
277280; Smith, 1990, pp. 311319). In his New Haven study Dahl defined a pluralist system of power or polyarchy as a form of inequality that tends not to
cumulate into definite patterns of subordination (Dahl, 1961, p. 7). In his and in
Charles Lindbloms more recent work there is recognition of the inadequacy of this
model as a description of the power structure characteristic of contemporary
market-based societies (Dahl and Lindblom, 1976, p. xxxvii). Both authors now
emphasise the persistent predominance of business interests or giant firms (Dahl
and Lindblom, 1976, p. xxxvii; Lindblom, 1982, p. 335; Dahl, 1980, p. 25).
Nevertheless, these authors retain a narrow procedural conception of politics. The
disproportionate power of large economic interests is their predominant influence
over executive deliberations and policy outcomes (Dahl and Lindblom, 1976, p.
xxxviii; Lindblom, 1982, p. 335).
It is this restrictive conception of politics which Finlayson and Martin critique in
their contribution to this journal. They draw upon the insights of cultural studies
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to criticise the ideological fiction that the political is an autonomous realm to be

kept sacred for the machinations of professional politicians and their technocratic
experts in academia and journalism (Finlayson and Martin, 1997, p. 188). In his
response to Finlayson and Martin, Brown reinstates a restrictive procedural conception of politics as the appropriate subject-matter of political studies. In the interest of maintaining a more manageable focus he equates real political significance
with an agents ability to affect the distribution of resources within society or policy
outcomes (Brown, 1998, pp. 175176).

Radical pluralism and the post-structuralist critique

of the principle of identity
In order to understand the radical pluralist conception of the political conceived
as ineradicable antagonism, it is first necessary to comprehend the post-structuralist
critique of the philosophical principle of identity. In his more recent book on
pluralism Gregor McLennan describes the theorisation of identity as the most
innovative aspect of contemporary pluralist writings (McLennan, 1995, p. 87). He
presents the question of identity as a question of social subjectivity (McLennan,
1995, p. 88). This is the meaning of identity that is usually associated with the
idea of identity politics. The last decades of the twentieth century have witnessed
a mass of interest in and around questions of identity politics. In a series of texts
from social theory to lifestyle magazines and television adverts, one finds references to the way in which individuals experience their ethnic or religious or sexual
identity, and to the phenomenon of identity crisis. Although significant, this is
not the conception of identity that is decisive in the texts of radical pluralism.
To appreciate the conception of political identity developed by thinkers such as
Connolly and Mouffe, it is necessary to get beyond this psycho-sociological
understanding of identity. More basic than this is the philosophical principle of
identity. In Western philosophical reflection identity is traditionally presumed to
be an essential ontological property of each discernible object. In Book Four of
Aristotles Metaphysics, identity is linked inseparably to the notions of unity and
substance (Aristotle, 1998, pp. 127128). Identity signifies the necessary unity of
being of any single substantial object or entity. The identity of an object an interest group for example is that which distinguishes it from all other objects. We
could say that the interest group has identity with itself. This is a tautology but the
principle of identity the principle of the intrinsic self-sameness of things
expressed in the formula x = x is the cornerstone of western thought. It has been
shown above that conventional pluralism understands politics as competition
between social objects interest groups which each enter the political arena with
fixed and essential identity. This is what is put at stake in radical pluralism.
In the development of their respective critiques of the principle of identity, both
Connolly and Mouffe have drawn upon insights developed in recent French philosophy by writers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. I will focus here
on Mouffes approach. One persistent theme in her work is the idea of constitutive externality (Mouffe, 1993a, p. 81, and 1993b, p. 2). The term constitutive
outside was coined by Henry Staten to describe the conception of irredeemably
split identity that emerges from Derridas deconstruction of structural linguistics
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(Staten, 1984, pp. 1617; Derrida, 1976, pp. 3058). The idea of constitutive externality stipulates that the other (that which is alien and outside) is a necessary
condition of self-identity (Derrida, 1976, p. 71). This is because identity is both
inessential and intrinsically relational. In order for an object to have identity it must
be in relation to an other, to an outside. However, precisely because the object
depends upon the other in order to be, the other also frustrates the fullness of the
identity of the object. Paradoxically the necessary other represents both the condition of possibility and impossibility of the objects (complete) identity (Mouffe,
1993a, p. 81). The notion of constitutive externality has profound implications for
understanding the nature of the political. It is not that social objects enter the arena
of the political with fixed and essential identity and only then confront each other.
Instead, the identity of each is forged in its very relations to diverse others. The
construction of social identity is always already political.

Radical pluralism and the political understood as

ineradicable antagonism
Because the other is experienced as both the condition of possibility and impossibility of my identity, this experience is one of antagonism. As Laclau and Mouffe
put it: the presence of the Other prevents me from being totally myself (Laclau
and Mouffe, 1985, p. 125). In the approach of radical pluralism, the political qua
antagonism is conceived as an event that takes place between intrinsically relational
entities because the necessary presence of each prevents either from ever achieving complete identity. The political is an ontological dimension of each and every
identity, because it is constituted in and through its necessarily antagonistic relations with diverse others. In his contribution to this journal Burns equates the
post-structuralist relational view of power with the idea that politics requires the
presence of at least two human beings (Burns, 2000, p. 97). This is incorrect. As
Derrida has emphasised, we should resist equating the who? of the other with the
human (Derrida, 1995, pp. 269 and 277). The other that I confront is literally
other, that which is alien and outside. The other that I confront at any given time
may be animal, vegetable or mineral. The radically pluralist conception of the
political can explain the hypothetical situation of Crusoe and his relationship to
his desert island that Burns invokes to illustrate the pervasiveness of politics
although for most of us most of the time identity is formed in relation to diverse
human and non-human others. As Connolly puts it: each identity is fated to
contend to various degrees and in multifarious ways with others it depends
on to enunciate itself. Thats politics, the issue is not if but how (Connolly, 1993,
p. 28).
An example drawn from recent political practice may help to explicate this difficult theorisation. In the demonstrations in Seattle, Gothenburg, Prague, Genoa,
and elsewhere against the (alleged) mischief of the World Trade Organisation, the
EU, the G8, the IMF and the World Bank, many campaigners have styled themselves as anti-capitalists. These campaigners have been relatively successful in
their objective to draw the worlds attention to their cause, and to disrupt the meetings of these various organisations. However, in the highly unlikely event that the
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anti-capitalists manage to overthrow the capitalist system as such, they would

not in any way realise their full identity. Instead, by annulling the other that is
constitutive of their identity as a political movement i.e. the capitalist system
they would annul that identity. The continuing antagonistic relationship of the
anti-capitalists to the system that they wish to overthrow is therefore paradoxically the condition of possibility of their being. On the other hand, the defiant
protestations of the campaigners are a reminder to the so-called political officials
and management gurus of the IMF and the World Bank that their ideology of free
trade also has its constitutive outside. This is the suffering of entire populations
who are systematically excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and also
the wanton destruction of the environment that the protesters seek to re-present
and to transgress.

Radical pluralism and politics understood as the

articulation or the enactment of social identity
Once identities are seen as inessential and intrinsically relational, we can appreciate that all social identities are constituted and transformed through political
practice. To repeat, for conventional pluralists interest groups enter the arena of
politics with fixed and essential identity. For radical pluralists on the other hand
politics is coextensive with the social. Social identities do not exist prior to the
moment of politics. Politics in its multifarious practices is the very means by
which the multiplicity of social identities are perpetually formed and reformed.
Consequently, as Ernesto Laclau puts it: social identity is an act of power and
identity as such is power (Laclau, 1990, p. 31). Mouffe and Connolly use the
terms articulation and enactment respectively to describe this political process
of identity formation/reformation (Mouffe, 1993a, p. 83; Connolly 1995a, p. xiv
and p. xxi).
Contra the conventional pluralists, politics cannot be separated off as a distinct
sphere of social activity: politics is ubiquitous. This approach allows for the
theorisation of a host of contemporary political struggles that may have nothing
to do directly with the development of public policy. For example, radical
pluralism can explicate the politics of cultural and life-style differences associated
with various forms of counter-culture, the micro-politics of superordination and
subordination within the family, or the subtle shifts of power relations in and
between various actors within the school or the workplace. These forms of
politics (amongst many others) require analysis of the manner in which language
(for example) and cultural codes more generally are articulated in ways which
perhaps seek to challenge existing constellations of identity, and to bring alternative relations of identity into being. For the radical pluralist this is the material
of politics.

Radical pluralism and the ethico-political

In contrast to the empiricism of conventional pluralism (see for example Dahl,
1958, pp. 463469), radical pluralists tend to be explicitly concerned with the links
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between the descriptive and the prescriptive dimensions of political analysis, with
the interface between politics and ethics. This brings radical pluralism close
to the traditional concerns of political philosophy. However, for radical pluralists
the good is always politically constructed and contextually specific. Ethical concerns never entirely escape politics. There is no moral or ethical de-contextualised
universality, whether of an Aristotelian, Kantian, or Utilitarian inspiration. I
will show that Connolly and Mouffes approaches to the question of the ethicopolitical are distinct but complementary. In her more recent work Mouffe emphasises the potentially disastrous implications of political antagonism. This she
effects through persistent references to the work of Carl Schmitt. According to
Schmitt the criterion of the political is the friend and enemy antithesis (Schmitt,
1996, p. 28). Schmitt conceptualises the political as antagonism. What characterises
his approach, however, is the emphasis on the ever present possibility of actual
physical killing (Schmitt, 1996, pp. 3233). For Mouffe the purpose of good
politics is to defuse the potentially disastrous implications of political antagonism (Mouffe, 2000, p. 101). Antagonism may be ineradicable but it is not
irreducible. What is at stake in the struggle for the ethico-political is the hegemonic
struggle to articulate a common political identity of persons (Mouffe, 1993a,
p. 82).
The struggle for hegemony is the struggle to create a political community of citizens. This is a community that transforms antagonism into agonism (Mouffe,
2000, p. 103). This is an ethico-political community because within the context
of the political community the opponent should be considered not as an enemy to
be destroyed, but as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated (Mouffe, 1993b, p. 82). Agonistic citizens meet paradoxically as friendly
enemies (Mouffe, 2000, p. 13). As David Marsh has recognised, what is at stake
here is the struggle to establish the rules of the game which the conventional
pluralists navely took as given (Marsh, 1998, p. 6). However, given the previous
analysis, it is clear that this ethico-political community will have been constructed
on the basis of some constitutive exclusion. The rules of the game will always be
only partially complete, and subject to the possibility of dissolution through hegemonic political struggle.
Like Mouffe, Connolly is concerned to defuse political antagonism. He is interested in the individual self and her/his attitude towards the other. He prescribes
adult strategies of self modification in the organisation of desire (Connolly,
1995a, p. 58). It is Connollys hope that through this micro-politics of the self
on itself, individuals will develop an ethos of agonistic respect among interdependent and contending constituencies (Connolly, 1993, p. 155 and 1995a, p.
xxi). Connolly and Mouffe have criticised each others approaches to the question
of the interface between politics and ethics. Connolly criticises Mouffe for
being insufficiently forthright in promoting a positive ethical stance (Connolly,
1995b, p. xxi). Mouffe, on the other hand, finds Connollys approach in danger
of collapsing politics into ethics (Mouffe, 2000, p. 107). Nevertheless, despite
their differences, Mouffes and Connollys approaches are complementary.
Mouffes work is instructive for her persistent emphasis upon the hegemonic
struggle to articulate the rules of the game. This is an exemplary form of
politics. However, rules are nothing without their interpretation: Mouffes work
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is supplemented by Connollys emphasis upon the micro-politics of individual


I have shown that the approach of radical pluralism is predicated upon a very broad
conception of the political (understood as the ineradicable element of antagonism
in human and in human/non-human affairs) and of politics (understood as the
articulation or the enactment of social identities). Other commentators have
acknowledged this distinctive radically pluralist conception of politics (McClure,
1992, p. 120; Marsh, 1998, p. 6). With the emphasis upon breadth, this approach
resonates with the approach of Finlayson and Martin, also with Burns, and
with alternative contemporary approaches such as feminism and post-Marxism
(see Bryson, 1992, pp. 194196 and Howarth, 1998, pp. 133135). Conventionally minded theorists might object that by drawing the scope of the political so
wide, radical pluralism effectively annuls political science as a coherent discipline.
They may equate radical pluralism with the unwanted theoretical baggage that
Brown thinks is in danger of swamping the discipline of political science (Brown,
1998, p. 175). There is value in the desire to retain a manageable focus. However,
this is no excuse for maintaining the unacceptably narrow conception of politics
typical of for example conventional (and neo) pluralism. As Slavoj Zizek puts
it: the exclusion of something from the political is the political gesture par excellence (Zizek, 1999, p. 182).
Theoretical innovation in political studies must keep pace with the increasingly
complex and fragile world in which we live. A series of events both good and
bad have led to a general awareness of increasing social and political complexity. These include: the revolutions in information technology and global communications, the experience of post-colonial Diaspora, the prospect of human cloning,
the deeds and continuing threat of international terrorism, the indiscriminate
spread of disease, and the onset of global warming and widespread environmental destruction. The narrow conception of politics understood as formal executive deliberation: as the process of government characteristic of conventional
pluralism and mainstream political science can only account in part for these events
and their impact on peoples lives. What this increasing complexity brings to the
fore is both the sheer pervasiveness of politics and the inseparability of political
from ethical concerns. The insights of radical pluralism are therefore well placed
to enable political theorists and practitioners alike to navigate these turbulent
events and the infinitely plural possibilities that will shape the politics of the new
millennium. One way to keep pace with this increasing complexity is to work
towards the elaboration of a typology of forms of political articulation and sites
of political enactment. Connolly has pioneered this approach (Connolly, 1995a,
p. xxi). Nevertheless, as always, there is plenty to be done.

1 I would like to thank Dr. David Morrice, Dr. Tony Burns, Ms. Gulshan Ara Khan, and three anonymous referees for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. Any errors are my own.
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