Deconstructing radical democracy: articulation, representation and being-with-others

Barnett, Clive (2004). Deconstructing radical democracy: articulation, representation and being-with-others. Political Geography, 23(5) pp. 503–528.



This paper addresses the contribution of deconstruction to democratic theory. It critically considers the usefulness of the conceptual distinction between “politics” and “the political” as a means of interpreting deconstruction’s relation to political questions. In particular, it critically engages with the inflection of deconstructive themes in the theory of radical democracy (RD) developed by Laclau and Mouffe. It is argued that this approach ontologizes the politics/political distinction, and elides together two distinct senses of otherness. This is registered in the prevalence of spatial tropes in this approach. The spatialization of key issues in political theory leads to a diminished sensitivity to the variegated temporalities through which solidarity and conflict, unity and multiplicity are negotiated. This is discussed with reference to the concept of articulation. By reducing temporality to a metaphysics of contingency, RD converges with a voluntaristic decisionism in its account of hegemony and political authority. The paper proceeds to a critical consideration of the interpretation of “undecidability” in RD, and of the elective affinity between this approach and the fascist critique of liberal democracy associated with Carl Schmitt. This discussion sets the scene for an alternative reading of the political significance of the theme of undecidability in Derrida’s thought. This reading focuses on the problem of negotiating two equally compelling forms of responsibility, the urgent responsibility to act in the world, and the patient responsibility to acknowledge otherness. By discussing the complex temporising associated with the theme of undecidability in deconstruction, the paper argues for a reassessment of the normative value of the concept of representation as it has developed in modern democratic theory. It develops an understanding of undecidability that points beyond the undeconstructed decisionism shared by both Schmitt and RD towards an account of the opening of public spaces of deliberation, deferral, and decision. More broadly, the paper is concerned with the moral limits of a prevalent spatialized interpretation of key themes in the poststructuralist canon, including difference, alterity, and otherness.

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