Anita van Rootselaar

Agonism and Dissatisfaction – democracy and productive versus destructive dissatisfaction


Link to the article. Thesis Research Master Political Philosophy. Radboud University, 2015.

Agonists argue that every ‘consensus’ constitutes a certain hegemony that leaves remainders. Agonistic democracy rests on the idea that there should be permanent room for contesting these hegemonies: exclusions should be exposed (rather than hidden), every decision should be contestable, and contestation should be never-ending, for any attempt at closure would imply a (undemocratic) permanence of existing hegemonies. Agonism’s call for permanent contestation assumes a productive type of conflict, one in which remainders are always prepared to come into action and question the existing structures. However, such a willingness to act is not a given. Dissatisfaction with the given order can also lead to inaction, and this happens in particular when there are no or insufficient spheres of influence – when people feel action is pointless as this will not have any effect. Such a destructive dissatisfaction can lead to less democratic expressions of discontent such as violence; the example I shall discuss here is the sensitivity of destructively dissatisfied individuals to populist movements. Agonism thus needs to overcome such a type of dissatisfaction. In this paper, I argue that agonism fails to do so due to (1) an insufficient account of how spheres of contestation can be institutionally constructed and/or secured, and penetrate the political decision-making structures; (2) a lack of attention to the relation between the plural and contending voices of the people and government in a non-disruptive mode; (3) a failure to properly acknowledge the need for common solutions and hence some form of compromise.


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