I for one sure as hell didn't know until I got an unsolicited email about two weeks ago from Mohammed ben Jelloun, directing me to an article he had published in Al Ahram, the Egyptian English-language newsweekly.
I assume ben Jelloun had read some of my diaries, probably on my support for a one-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and he wanted to share with me his own perspective on the issue.
His perspective, it turns out, is really quite interesting and it all turns on this notion of "agonism" in politics. As I had never even heard the term before getting his email, I did a little online research and was able to make better sense of what he was talking about. The results of that research on the flip.
My research pretty much started at wikipedia, where I found this article on "agonism". It tells us that:
Agonists are sceptical about the capacity of politics to eliminate, overcome or circumvent deep divisions within our society - of class, culture, gender, ideology and so on. As such, they find liberalism, communitarianism and multiculturalism wanting. These theories - which have been the backbone of political theory for the past thirty years - are essentially optimistic about the possibility of finding a harmonious and peaceful pattern of political and social cooperation. Agonists, then, both claim that this optimism is unjustified and, hence, re-orientate political theory to another question: how should we deal with irreducible difference? In the view of agonists, proponents of the aforementioned traditions, in keeping their eyes fixed on forms of utopian cooperation, have failed to respond usefully to the messiness of contemporary political practice.
Already the relevance of the concept to the I/P conflict should be obvious. But wikipedia continues, quoting from Samuel Chambers:
Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented not merely toward victory or defeat, but emphasizing the importance of the struggle itself-a struggle that cannot exist without the opponent. Victory through forfeit or default, or over an unworthy opponent, comes up short compared to a defeat at the hands of a worthy opponent-a defeat that still brings honor. An agonistic discourse will therefore be one marked not merely by conflict but just as importantly, by mutual admiration
At the current time, it certainly is difficult to conceive of Israelis and Palestinians attaining a status of not just "conflict but ... mutual admiration."
The wikipedia page links to an article(.pdf file) by French political theorist Chantal Mouffe. I got interested when I saw that, because I had read Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy when I was in grad school and, while it was certainly a tough book to get through, found it to be intellectually stimulating and provocative. So I ran on over and took a read through her short essay on agonistic pluralism. In her abstract, Mouffe writes:
The main thesis that I put forward in this article is that democratic theory needs to acknowledge the ineradicability of antagonism and the impossibility of achieving a fully inclusive rational consensus. I argue that a model of democracy in terms of ‘agonistic pluralism’ can help us to better envisage the main challenge facing democratic politics today: how to create democratic forms of identifications that will contribute to mobilize passions towards democratic designs.
In the body of the essay, she argues that antagonism is ineradicable because the nature of politics is to institutionalize asymmetrical power relations in society, a reality traditional liberal theory is unable to address because it:
sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible. What is precluded in these rationalistic approaches is the very question of what are the conditions of existence of the democratic subject.
She goes on to argue that relations of power themselves constitute social identity -- we are who we are, that is, at least in part because of who exercises power over us and who we exercise power over ourselves. This, however, leads to serious problems for democratic theory:
if we accept that relations of power are constitutive of the social, then the main question for democratic politics is not how to eliminate power but how to constitute forms of power more compatible with democratic values.
Coming to terms with the constitutive nature of power implies relinquishing the ideal of a democratic society as the realization of a perfect harmony or transparency. The democratic character of a society can only be based on the fact that no limited social actor can attribute to herself the representation of the totality and claim to have the "mastery" of the foundation.
Antagonism, then, is an irreducible element of political society. How do we manage it, in the context of promoting the most just and fair society possible? Mouffe offers her notion of "agonistic pluralism":
Envisaged from the point of view of "agonistic pluralism", the aim of democratic politics is to construct the "them" in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed, but an "adversary", i.e. somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question. This is the real meaning of liberal democratic tolerance, which does not entail condoning ideas that we oppose or being indifferent to standpoints that we disagree with, but treating those who defend them as legitimate opponents. This category of the "adversary" does not eliminate antagonism, though, and it should be distinguished from the liberal notion of the competitor with which it is sometimes identified. An adversary is an enemy, but a legitimate enemy, one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality. But we disagree on the meaning and implementation of those principles and such a disagreement is not one that could be resolved through deliberation and rational discussion. Indeed, given the ineradicable pluralism of value, there is not rational resolution of the conflict, hence its antagonistic dimension.
Readers who have followed me to this point might be noticing an affinity between Mouffe and Carl Schmitt, and they'd be right. The difference however -- and it is a critical one -- is that Schmitt believed that coexistence between enemies is impossible, that politics inevitably devolved into a war to the death. Mouffe insists in the agon, which she identifies with the Greek ideal of the worthy adversary. In her view, we become who are in part by conflicting with our worthy adversary, and without our adversary we could not be ourselves. Destroying our enemy is a meaningless and ineffective goal, for it would imply our own destruction.
Going back to the wikipedia page on agonism, it turns out there's another link there, this one to an online article by none other than Mohammed ben Jelloun! Before going on to a discussion of ben Jelloun's quite different notion of "agonistic consociationalism," it's probably time to introduce him a little better to our audience.
Now, you probably thought, as I initially did, that a guy with an Arabic name writing in an Egyptian weekly about Lebanese politics is probably some partisan Middle Easterner with an axe to grind. In fact, he's a Swedish-trained post-structuralist political theorist and sociologist, who has been employed at the École de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales -- generally considered France's most prestigious institution in the social sciences. He's been developing his theory of agonistic politics since roughly the turn of the century, near as I can figure, and he told me in an email that his principal inspiration was David Owen's work on Friedrich Nietzsche.
The paper (.pdf file) linked to at wikipedia is a 2005 conference paper he wrote called "The Agonistic Consociation." He agrees with Mouffe on the basic definition of agonistic politics, but
contrarily to Mouffe (or what I take to be her point of view), the agonistic state need neither be liberal nor secular (and neither conservative nor theocratic). It could be instead communitarian or a non-aggressive ‘decent hierarchy’ in Rawlsian meaning, provided only it insures for its citizens or members specifically agonistic rights and duties.
Rawls, it turns out, is critically important to ben Jelloun's conception of agonistic consociation. Much of the essay analyzes Rawls's concept of a "decent hierarchical society" as outlined in his 1999 Law of Peoples. While I haven't read Rawls's book, what I discern from ben Jelloun's reading of it is that Rawls is interested in constructing a stable international order composed of states with very different internal social orders. The only requirement to join this stable order is that the society be composed of decent people who
honor the laws of peace [and that] its system of law must be such as to respect human rights and to impose duties and obligations on all persons in its territory. Its system of law must follow a common good idea of justice that takes into account what it sees as the fundamental interests of everyone in society. And, finally, there must be a sincere and not unreasonable belief on the part of judges and other officials that the law is indeed guided by a common good idea of justice.
A decent society does not have to treat its citizens equally.
Rather it views persons as responsible and cooperating members of their respective groups. Hence: persons can recognize, understand, and act in accordance with their moral duties and obligations as members of these groups.
Agonistic states emerge, ben Jelloun suggests, when there are
structures of deeply divided and plural societies. And most of the time the agonistic state must melt in and become some sort of consociation or federation of competing social segments and communities, instead of being a unitary society of competing individuals in the first place.
At about this point, I started to wonder how much agonistic politics is really a new addition to the liberal tradition, versus how much it is a resuscitation of an older, pre-Adam Smith liberal/republican understanding of human behavior? I mean, look at how James Madison described competing interests in his celebrated Federalist #10:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
Ok, now we're getting closer to agonistic politics might help us understand the contours of a future stable secular binational state in Israel/Palestine. Let's look at a couple more elements ben Jelloun identifies as part of his schema:
a consociation may be said to be agonistic when its institutions provide a participation arena for contending patriotic social segments or communities. It is agonistic too when its social segments or communities actually show patriotism and loyalty to the institutions of their arena-like consociation, while respectively promoting distinct national projects and cultural meanings.
Remember, this is all based on the notion of the agon, the worthy adversary who by being in conflict with us makes us who we are.
Let's go back now to ben Jelloun's Al Ahram piece which started this whole investigation, and see what he has to say about what's going on in Lebanon.
He starts by quoting Hezbollah strategist Ali Fayyad that "Lebanese national interests are the essential criterion for the behaviour of the resistance movement." ben Jelloun goes on to extrapolate:
the resistance as incarnated by Hizbullah would be an advanced form of patriotic participation and republican citizenship. More precisely, Hizbullah would be in the process of subordinating the Islamic nation to the Lebanese state; also, it would be in the process of subordinating cultural and Umma related concerns to territorial and fatherland related ones. In other words, the party would be in the process of including its communitarian-republican like political-philosophical vision within an agonistic-republican one...
He sees Hezbollah as having evolved from "an exclusive (Islamic) communitarianism to an inclusive (multi-confessional) consociationalism" which he links to thinking of both Edward Said and Hannah Arendt. Arendt's thinking, he feels, is compatible with a consociational ideal despite her "strictly individualistic or citizen-centric" conception of agonism. According to ben Jelloun, Edward Said cited Arendt as an early supporter of a secular binational state in Israel (along with Buber, Magnes, and others -- see my earlier diary on Leila Farsakh).
Ben Jelloun's subject is really Lebanon, not Israel, and his source for Hezbollah's commitment to Lebanese consociationalism is a single text by a single Hezbollah political strategist. I don't have the expertise to say whether he is on target or not.
What I can say, though, is that he makes a very interesting case for the possibility of bitter enemies living together. When I think about the regular crew in I/P diaries (most of whom probably have not made it to the end of this diary...), and the way we kind of flock together on a daily basis to debate, argue, fight, and trollrate, I have to wonder.
Are we not practicing agon? If we can and do, why can't Palestinians and Israelis as well?