For agonistic, not antagonistic politics

For agonistic, not antagonistic politics
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Some proponents of a new “third force” seem to be hinting this will deliver a mediated love fest into Guyanese politics. I, on the other hand, have always been wary of the implicitly liberal premise 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. Politics is always about lambs struggling to become lions and the lions fending them off: in liberal polities the opposition are the lambs with the party in power the lions.

               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 ascriptive identities - the emotional affects are with us in spades because of incommensurable values. Consequently the always latent tendency for our political struggles – and all the other struggles are ultimately over questions of power and so political – is 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 assume power, the conflict will disappear. Utopia would have arrived. I believe this to be a fairy tale. As I wrote over thirty years ago humans will find one or other reason to divide themselves and deal with the “other” aggressively.

               There is now a school of thought that accepts this tendency of humans to cleave into groups that manifest hostility towards each other: agonism. But 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, that 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 will erupt periodically, or large sections of some subaltern groups will have to be locked away as in the US. 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. Britain has devolved. India continues to do so. Sudan fissioned as had Czechoslovakia earlier; not to mention Bosnia a tad more violently. Other conflict ridden countries, such as Kenya have furthered processes of extensive deep, institutionalised devolution power through federalism which should facilitate agonistic politics at the grassroots level and hopefully spare build-up of hostilities that can tear the country apart. We should extend this into our villages.

               Thus far from proposing love fests, I am suggesting the ever present simmering hostility ought not to be fanned but given expression institutionally. Worse it ought not to be moralised as a struggle between “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 an opposition victory.  I am further saying that the present political arrangements will ensure that whichever side wins the election, unless a system is introduced that equitably distributes power among the various groups, we are ensuring that the inevitable resentment in the “remainders” will erupt sooner or later.

               A distributed system, best exemplified by Federalism, also encourages some of the more mature present lions not to fight to the death. There will be “something” for everybody, without the need for the beneficence of future lions.