We may be tempted to think that using the word ‘depoliticization’ in a critical sense requires the assumption that the true version of politics is in some sense morally superior to the untrue version. But then we are assuming that all conceptions of politics make use of a moral league table, and this turns out to be very hard to reconcile with European (‘continental’) political philosophy, both from a contemporary and a historical perspective. In particular, those interested in political difference – a notion we think depolcrit is committed to – are concerned about the autonomy of politics and have other reasons for trying to resist the intrusion of ethics/morality. This is all the more problematic since depolcrit also seems to have a connection with rejecting the notion that politics has to ‘respond’ to objective necessities, and insists on the opposite –  a normatively charged notion of responsibility. In other words, the realms of ethics and politics are very difficult to bring into contact with each other. Let us reflect on why this would be the case – we will need several posts to do this.

A first spokesperson for the camp of political difference is Chantal Mouffe. Her analysis takes as its context the blurring of the left/right frontier, for instance in Tony Blair’s Labour Party (in the Netherlands, we may recall Wim Kok ‘shaking off his ideological feathers’), and the subsequent rise of populist parties. Mouffe combines the first term of her analysis, the blurring of the distinction between left and right, with the disappearance of the adversarial mode of politics. The Schmittian influence in both Mouffe and Laclau is that they see politics as fundamentally antagonistic: it necessitates drawing a line between allies and adversaries (a softened version of Schmitt’s ‘friends and enemies). According to Mouffe, present political discussion is shaped by two factors: the misguided insistence that the adversial mode of politics has been overcome, and the need to dismiss right-wing populism all the same. The latter cannot be engaged politically without contradicting the first factor. Right-wing populists can thus not appear as adversaries to be fought politically: instead, they are cast as the ‘extreme right’ and grouped in with evil. This is where moral categories enter into politics, according to Mouffe (2005, 72-74).

For Mouffe, casting populism in moral terms has a few different functions (‘added bonuses’): for instance, creating an identity for the ‘morally upright’ liberal democrats, mobilizing passions (ibid, 73). But, more importantly, it also constitutes a perversity. It is for Mouffe, following Flahaut, a ‘puritanism of good feeling’ that allows mainstream institutional politics to describe itself as essentially moral, while casting evil outside themselves and rediscovering some form of heroism (ibid, 74-75) – where really there is none, we might add.

The problem here is not that politics is being replaced by morality. For, as we have seen, there is still an adversarial relationship, even though it is immediately disavowed. This adversarial characteristic is, for Mouffe and others, the hallmark of politics. Instead, we see that politics is being played out “in the moral register” (ibid, 75). This means that political distinctions are expressed using the vocabulary of morality. Mouffe notes that “no agonistic debate is possible” with a moral enemy: they must be eradicated. What happens even more often is to classify one’s adversaries as a “moral disease”, which means that “one should not even try to provide an explanation for their emergence and success” (ibid, 76). Recall, at this point, the response to terrorism as an ‘attack on our values’ that has been mentioned in previous posts. In that depoliticized account, the terrorists are ‘just there’ as objective nuisances to the system – jealous of our freedom perhaps, but never as part of a system of exchange that involves our own political actions as well. This is where Mouffe’s analysis becomes relevant for our purposes: the moralization of the adversary means that our relationship with them is depoliticized. Mouffe likens this dynamic to the building of a “cordon sanitaire” (ibid), which correctly describes the simultaneity of two processes. First, the shutting out of the adversary, which is no longer granted the dignity of even being an adversary, but is evil and as such irredeemably other. Second, the unification and justification of the disparate field of allies. Both are, to use a term from Marxist political philosophy, reified.

What does this analysis show about the relationship between morality and politics? To be sure, it brings out a potentially dangerous implication of bringing morality too close to politics. But the argument for politics itself, for restoring the adversarial mode of politics to prominence, still needs to be addressed. We have already briefly considered (above and in the first post) the potential role of responsibility in politics. Assuming responsibility in politics would then mean eschewing the role of the passive spectator faced with objective necessities; insisting on the political dimensions of these so-called necessities (if they are to be called that, they are at best ‘contingent necessities’) and hence on our ability to act, to interfere. This notion of responsibility could be under fire from Mouffe’s account. But before we address that question, there are other battle fronts that need to be addressed. We have now seen Mouffe’s account, but hers is not the final word on political difference vis-à-vis morality. She argues, in a nutshell, that morality potentially stifles the kind of antagonism she values in politics. But what if morality is necessarily on the side of the oppressive status quo?


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