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KIOUPKIOLIS, Alexandros. Radical Democracy, Biopolitical Emancipation and Anarchic Dilemmas
Radical Democracy, Biopolitical Emancipation and Anarchic Dilemmas
Article published on 11 January 2013
last modification on 26 December 2012

by r-c.
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Contemporary visions of radical democracy mark themselves off from other democratic paradigms through the stronger accent that they place on contingency, antagonism, contestation and openness. This emphasis provides a point of convergence for the otherwise disparate figures sketched out by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, on the one hand, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, on the other.

In the last decade, however, conceptual developments in this body of thought combined with political events and controversies to sharpen various divisions in radical democracy, highlighting the limits of the different approaches and calling for a renewal of thought. Theoretical dichotomies such as ‘vertical’, hegemonic organisation versus a ‘horizontal’ articulation of differences, and ‘abundance of being’ versus ‘constitutive lack’ tie in with political conflicts in grassroots movements, which revolve around the need for centralised coordination and state-oriented action.This entwinement has given a more passionate inflection to abstract discussions and has heightened the practical relevance of democratic thought.

The paper seeks to foster a more acute understanding of radical democratic emancipation through an internal engagement with alternative theories, which are pitted against one another and are cross-fertilised along certain dimensions. The aim is not to procure a new ‘model’ of radical democracy or a dialectical synthesis of oppositions. It is rather to open up themes for reworking, to map out directions for revision in the various currents of radical thought and to indicate ways of negotiating tensions which would further emancipatory causes.

Transcendental hegemony?

Laclau’s conception of democracy is anchored in a theory that knits together contingency, negativity, exclusion, hegemony and representation. The dismissal of overarching historical teleologies, necessary laws and platonic archetypes is the common currency of much discourse on radical democracy. What singles out Laclau’s intervention, developed with the aid of Chantal Mouffe, is the primacy it imputes to lack, negativity, antagonism, exclusion and hegemonic power, which are seen as intrinsic to social contingency. Society is essentially unfixed because it lacks a necessary structure, a fully unifying foundation or a bundle of inescapable laws

Negativity is fundamental in that social settlements remain always vulnerable to disturbances and social antagonisms. Hegemony, for Laclau, designates primarily a process of community-building through social conflict. Different forces and projects which strive to shape the contours of the community stage their particular aims as universal or representative of common interests.

One of the differences –the different demands and groups which are united in their opposition to a common opponent- is partly emptied of its particular meaning and takes on the function of a universal agent who speaks and acts in the name of collective interests. Power enters twice this operation. First, since no necessary laws dictate which particular agent will play the key part in constructing the community, the uneven distribution of power between different actors decides who gains the upper hand. Second, since collective entities are formed by means of a radical exclusion of antagonistic forces, power pervades the relations between the community and the forces it negates.

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