Theories of Democracy Part 6: Radical Pluralism

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Radical pluralism is a democratic theory put forward by such thinkers as Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Claude Lefort. It opposes liberal and deliberative democracy primarily in its insistence that rational consensus cannot be achieved, but that democracy must allow for healthy political clashes between voters whose positions are deeply held and fundamentally diverge. The philosophers are very suspicious of current democratic practices that seek to gloss over fundamental disagreements by switching the register of public discourse from political conflict to moral consensus.

A pollyty is based on a similar assessment of the necessity of political conflict, however, instead of trying to re-insert a healthy agon into the state’s democratic practices, the pollyty relocates those political disagreements away from the state onto a separate, higher level at which particular cultural and moral choices are no longer mutually exclusive. One pollyty can be thoroughly socialist, denying to its members the very notion of private property, while another could restrict itself to providing (capitalist) mutual insurance policies, another could essentially function as a union, whereas a fourth might provide guild-like educational and employment services. Moreover, an individual could potentially be a member of all four of those guilds. This is a marked advance over the agonistics of radical pluralism, which still requires that the state’s democratic process eventually decide upon one set of laws which must then be applied to the entire population.

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