tautology

More thoughts towards a review of Tønder and Thomassen’s Radical Democracy

In a quirk of sloppy copy-editing, one of the contributions to Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen’s collection, Radical Democracy, bears the running header “For an Agnostic Public Sphere” instead of the essay’s actual title, which is “For an Agonistic Public Sphere.”

But this confusion between agnosticism and agonism is perhaps symptomatic of the problems afflicting the very concept of radical democracy. For though its proponents repeatedly invoke notions of political combat and engagement, they all too easily slip into quiescent indecision.

Put it this way: it is far from clear what is “radical” about radical democracy behind the rhetorical display of terms such as agonism, antagonism, pluralism, and the like.

ballot boxIs radical democracy a specific form of democracy, comparable to but different from (say) the Athenian, liberal, or neoliberal variants of democratic practice? And if so, is it a democracy still to come, to be fought for as a perhaps utopian horizon of democratic thought and struggle?

Or is it, by contrast, a form of democracy in which some groups (new social movements, say) currently engage, in other words a counter-democratic actuality that has emerged since the end of the Cold War and the bad old days of class politics?

On the other hand, could radical democracy be found less either in the future or the present, but in a return to the founding moment of the so-called “democratic revolutions”? Is radical democracy then a rediscovery of an inherent radicality democracy once provided but has now lost? In slightly different words, is radical democracy simply another name for what Simon Critchley here terms “true” democracy?

Or finally, is democracy always radical? Is radical democracy really a tautology, in that democracy properly understood and described, even as it is played out currently in the real world, is necessarily in some way radical?

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