Agonism; not antagonism, in Federalism

Agonism; not antagonism, in Federalism

Photo : Ravi Dev

While I have condemned the politics of entitlement unleashed in Guyana, I have always been wary of the Liberal promise that lions and lambs can sit around a table and through rational discussion, arrive at consensuses on which they can all act and live happily ever after. Maybe lions and lions but never lions and lambs! Our present politics is about lambs struggling to become lions and the lions fending them off. In Guyana, however, it is tough for the Opposition PPP lambs to now become lions when they refused to acquire fangs and claws during their time in power.

This proclivity to struggle is ineradicable because humans, pace the liberal view, do not only act out of cold, rational calculus. There is always the messy business of predispositions, feelings, and emotions that coalesce in group solidarities, exclusions and antagonisms. All societies are therefore “plural” to a lesser or greater degree. In our plural society where our divisions are not just around economic class issues, but include ethnicity and religion - going to the very heart of ascribed identities - the emotional affects are with us in spades because of their entanglement with personal and group worth. Consequently, the tendency is for our political struggles to get out of hand.

This view of politics that places conflict at the centre goes beyond the old, familiar school of “conflict theorists” such as the Marxists. The latter, for instance, propose while class conflict is immanent in the present capitalist “conjuncture”, once the working class assumes power, the conflict will disappear. Utopia would have arrived. I believe this to be a fairy tale. Humans will find one or other reason to divide themselves and deal with the “other” aggressively.

There is, however, a school of thought that accepts this tendency of humans to cleave into groups that manifest hostility towards each other: “agonism”. Rather than treating each other as enemies to be obliterated, the “other” is considered as adversaries with positions we cannot agree on but yet respect. Rather that pretending, as liberalism does, we can always rationally discuss away the immanent hostility between deeply divided groups, agonistic politics aim to challenge and channel it in non-destructive, institutionalised ways. If this is not done, then violence and pacification become the order of the day. The goal is not to find consensus at any cost but to manage dissensus.

Each polity has its unique blend of incommensurable pluralism generating its own volatile melange of conflicts and consequently there is no one silver bullet to confront them all. However, we can observe the trends in polities that have exposed the hollowness of both Marxist and Liberal utopian thinking to deal with deep pluralism.

ACDA had grasped the inadequacy of our specific political model to deal with our pluralism but their solution was still firmly positioned within the failed liberal premises. I’d asked on several occasions why they invoked the advice of Sir Arthur Lewis on plural societies re coalitions but never about Federalism. They have now even abandoned “coalitions”. I have advocated we carry Federalist devolution all the way down to the village level which would facilitate agonistic politics at that level and hopefully vent the hostilities that can tear the country apart.

The present tensions ought not to be fanned but given expression institutionally and certainly not be moralised as a struggle between “civilised” and “vulgarians” which segues into “good” and “evil”. This reinforces the feeling that the “other” is the “enemy” to be eliminated. No one gains when there are explosions. More pertinently, for peaceful political change, open hostilities scare away key constituencies that can secure legitimate victory.

Unless a system is introduced that equitably distributes power among the various groups, the present winner-take-all political arrangements will ensure whichever side wins the election, the inevitable resentment in the “remainders” will erupt sooner or later. After all, even lambs can grow into rams with powerful horns while lions can grow old and lose their teeth.

In a distributed system of power, best exemplified by Federalism, there will be “something” for everybody, without the need for the beneficence of future lions and rams.