Radical democracy  

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Radical democracy was articulated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, written in 1985. They argue that social movements which attempt to create social and political change need a strategy which challenges neoliberal and neoconservative concepts of democracy. This strategy is to expand the liberal definition of democracy, based on freedom and equality, to include difference.



Within radical democracy there are three distinct strands, as articulated by Lincoln Dahlberg. These strands can be labeled as deliberative, agonistic and autonomist.

The first and most noted strand of radical democracy is the agonistic perspective, which is associated with the work of Laclau and Mouffe. Radical democracy was articulated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, written in 1985. They argue that social movements which attempt to create social and political change need a strategy which challenges neoliberal and neoconservative concepts of democracy. This strategy is to expand the liberal definition of democracy, based on freedom and equality, to include difference.

According to Laclau and Mouffe "Radical democracy" means "the root of democracy". Laclau and Mouffe claim that liberal democracy and deliberative democracy, in their attempts to build consensus, oppress differing opinions, races, classes, genders, and worldviews. In the world, in a country, and in a social movement there are many (a plurality of) differences which resist consensus. Radical democracy is not only accepting of difference, dissent and antagonisms, but is dependent on it. Laclau and Mouffe argue based on the assumption that there are oppressive power relations that exist in society and that those oppressive relations should be made visible, re-negotiated and altered. By building democracy around difference and dissent, oppressive power relations existing in societies are able to come to the forefront so that they can be challenged.

The second strand, deliberative, is mostly associated with the work of Jürgen Habermas. This strand of radical democracy is opposed to the agonistic perspective of Laclau and Mouffe. Habermas argues that political problems surrounding the organization of life can be resolved by deliberation. That is, people coming together and deliberating on the best possible solution. This type of radical democracy is in contrast with the agonistic perspective based on consensus and communicative means: there is a reflexive critical process of coming to the best solution. Equality and freedom are at the root of Habermas´ deliberative theory. The deliberation is established through institutions that can ensure free and equal participation of all. Habermas is aware of the fact that different cultures, world-views and ethics can lead to difficulties in the deliberative process. Despite this fact he argues that the communicative reason can create a bridge between opposing views and interests.

The third strand of radical democracy is the autonomist strand, which is associated with left-communist and post-Marxist ideas. The difference between this type of radical democracy and the two noted above is the focus on "the community." The community is seen as the pure constituted power instead of the deliberative rational individuals or the agonistic groups as in the first two strands. The community is resembles a "plural multitude" (of people) instead of the working class in traditional Marxist theory. This plural multitude is the pure constituted power and reclaims this power by searching and creating mutual understandings within the community. This strand of radical democracy challenges the traditional thinking about equality and freedom in liberal democracies by stating that individual equality can be found in the singularities within the multitude, equality overall is created by an all-inclusive multitude and freedom is created by restoring the multitude in its pure constituted power. This strand of radical democracy is often a term used to refer to the post-Marxist perspectives of Italian radicalism - for example Paolo Virno. Template:Democracy


Agonistic perspective

  • William E. Connolly - Connoly is associated with his promotion of an agonistic democracy. An agonistic democracy is focused on contestation rather than on rational consensus. The discourse is not violence-based, but engages different aspects of political conflict. According to Connoly an agonistic democracy is based on a term he calls ¨agonistic respect¨, which allows people to honor different sources and conflicting opinions.

Deliberative perspective

  • Jürgen Habermas - As noted above, a proponent of a deliberative democracy and therefore positioned within the deliberative perspective.
  • John Rawls - Together with Habermas one of the most influential proponents of deliberative democracy. For Rawls, there is a need for certain conditions in democracy that can ensure the equal participation of all citizens. Rawls advocated for the use of reason and self-interest to justify a fair political system. He also creates the term ¨overlapping consensus¨ which entails that although different multicultural groups in society have contrasting norms and values, there are always overlapping agreement on certain important social, economical and political topics.

Autonomist perspective

  • Cornel West - West describes himself as a radical democrat and a non-Marxist socialist, which positions him in the critical post-Marxist strand of radical democracy.
  • Raya Dunayevskaya - Associated with the critical post-Marxist strand of radical democracy.
  • Paolo Virno - Figurehead for the Italian Autonomist Marxist movement.


Critique on the agonistic perspective

Laclau and Mouffe have argued for radical agonistic democracy, where different opinions and worldviews are not oppressed by the search for consensus in liberal and deliberative democracy. As this agonistic perspective has been most influential in academic literature, it has been subject to most criticisms on the idea of radical democracy. Brockelman for example argues that the theory of radical democracy is an Utopian idea. Political theory, he argues, should not be used as offering a vision of a desirable society. In the same vein, it is argued that radical democracy might be useful at the local level, but does not offer a realistic perception of decision-making on the national level. For example, people might know what they want to see changing in their town and feel the urge to participate in the decision-making process of future local policy. Developing an opinion about issues at the local level often does not require specific skills or education. Deliberation in order to combat the problem of groupthink, in which the view of the majority dominates over the view of the minority, can be useful in this setting. However, people might not be skilled enough or willing to decide about national or international problems. A radical democracy approach for overcoming the flaws of democracy is, it is argued, not suitable for levels higher than the local one.

Critique on the deliberative perspective

Habermas and Rawls have argued for radical deliberative democracy, where consensus and communicative means are at the root of politics. However, some scholars identify multiple tensions between participation and deliberation. Three of these tensions are identified by Joshua Cohen, a student of the philosopher John Rawls:

  1. Wanting to improve the quality of deliberation can be at the expense of public participation. In this case, representatives and legislators are more focused on argumentation and deliberation than on seeking to advance the interests of their constituents. By focusing on reasonable deliberation the interests of particular constituents can be underrepresented.
  1. Conversely, seeking to maximize the public participation can be at the expense of the quality of deliberation. Maximize public participation can be accomplished by popular initiatives like referendums. Referendums however allows people to decide on an important topic with an yes/no vote. By using a yes/no vote people can be discouraged to engage in a reasoned discussion in creating legislation. It is also argued that through maximizing public participation, manipulation and suppression become present.
  2. Deliberation depends on sufficient knowledge and interests from all participants as well as adequate and easy accessible information. On many important issues however, the number of participators with sufficient knowledge is rather limited and thus the quality of deliberation declines when more uninformed participants enter the discussion.

Radical democracy and colonialism

Because of radical democracy's focus on difference, and challenging oppressive power relations, it has been seen as conducive to post-colonial theory and decolonization. However, the concept of radical democracy is seen in some circles as colonial in nature due to its reliance on a western notion of democracy.

It is argued that liberal democracy is viewed by the West as the only legitimate form of governance. Spreading liberal democracy through international law as a condition for recognition from and trade with the West, can be seen as a form of new, informal imperialism. Radical democracy theory is criticized for being situated in this kind of Western modernity perspective. In their attempt of prescribing an ideal society, radical democracy theorists do not create a new kind, but rather reinvent the Western dominant tradition of liberal democracy. Also, radical democracy challenges consensus decision-making processes which are essential to many indigenous governing practices.

Re-interpretations and adaptations

Since Laclau and Mouffe argued for a radical democracy, many other theorists and practitioners have adapted and changed the term. For example, bell hooks and Henry Giroux have all written about the application of radical democracy in education. In Hook´s book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom she argues for education where educators teach students to go beyond the limits imposed against racial, sexual and class boundaries in order to "achieve the gift of freedom". Paulo Freire's work, although initiated decades before Laclau and Mouffe, can also be read through similar lenses. Theorists such as Paul Chatterton and Richard JF Day have written about the importance of radical democracy within some of the autonomous movements in Latin America (namely the EZLN—Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico, the MST—Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil, and the Piquetero—Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina) although the term radical democracy is used differently in these contexts.

Radical democracy and the internet

With the rise of the internet in the years after the development of various strands of radical democracy theory, the relationship between the internet and the theory has been increasingly focussed upon. The internet is regarded as an important aspect of radical democracy, as it provides a means for communication which is central to every approach to the theory.

The internet is believed to reinforce both the theory of radical democracy and the actual possibility of radical democracy through three distinct ways:

  1. The internet provides a platform for further discussion about radical democracy, thus contributing to the theory's development;
  2. The internet allows new political communities and democratic cultures to emerge that challenge the existing political ideas;
  3. The internet strengthens the voice of minority groups.

This last point refers to the concept of a radical public sphere where voice in the political debate is given to otherwise oppressed or marginalized groups.

Approached from the radical democracy theory, the expression of such views on the internet can be understood as online activism. In current liberal representative democracies, certain voices and interests are always favoured above others. Through online activism, excluded opinions and views can still be articulated. In this way, activists contribute to the ideal of a heterogeneity of positions. However, the digital age does not necessarily contribute to the notion of radical democracy. Social media platforms possess the opportunity of shutting down certain, often radical, voices. This is counterproductive to radical democracy

Contemporary mass movements committed to radical democracy

  • The EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico: a far-left militant and political group. Their ideology is based on their aspiration to execute politics in a bottom-up, rather than top-down way. The group has presented several laws in 1994, including laws to advance women's position in the country.Template:POV-inline
  • The MST – Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil: a social movement that aims at land reform to make land ownership more accessible for the poor. It claims to seek to achieve this goal through combating social issues such as racism, sexism and skewed income distributions.
  • The Piqueteros – Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina.
  • The Abahlali baseMjondolo – shack dwellers' movement in South Africa.
  • The Socialist Party USA this party was founded in 1973. It claims to be opposed to all forms of oppression, and to seek to create a "non-racist, classless, feminist and socialist society".
  • JungdemokratInnen/Junge Linke (translated Young Democrats/Young Left,JD/JL) - a left-wing political youth organization in Germany and the former youth wing of a liberal party called FDP.
  • Radical Democracy Party (United States) – was an abolitionist and anti-Confederate political party in the United States.
  • Radical Democracy Party (Chile) – Chilean Centre-right political party created in 1969, and disbanded in 1990.


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