Tuesday, March 15, 2005

PASSION (and belonging)

So, one of the conversations in Hope is with post-Marxists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Normally I avoid semiotics, Derrida and Lacan, but I like Mouffe because of her focus on passion. In this conversation (extract here) she identifies passion as that which drives our social imaginary, or something beyond interests and rationality.

"When you introduce this notion of social imaginary it implies that you are leaving the rationalist perspective behind. The term passion is some kind of placeholder for all those things that cannot be reduced to interest or rationality—you know, fantasies, desire, all those things that a rationalist approach is unable to understand in the very construction of human subjectivity and identity."

She sees passion as something crucial to, and currently lacking in, democratic politics. Mouffe believes that the recent rise in fundamentalism and right-wing politics is directly related to the Left's recent failure to cultivate passion and offer hope. And when the only people mobilising passions and offering hope are different kinds of fundamentalists, she reminds us of what is at stake.

Mouffe argues for a Leftist radicalisation of democracy based on the understanding that "democracy is never going to be completely realised" but it remains the most valuable political project or effort we can have. She identifies pluralist democracy - a democracy that values difference - as a process we work towards, and something that can never be entirely fulfilled.

"Imagine a pluralist democracy that would be perfectly realised and everyone would agree. That would no longer be pluralist democracy because there wouldn't be any difference - it would be a completely static situation and, in fact, that is the dream of totalitarianism ... If you value pluralism then you will be alive to the idea that the impossibility of democracy or some final goal is not an impediment, or something negative. You can see it as something positive. And, on that basis, one can mobilise enthusiasm and say, 'Well yes, we will never reach it, but thank God we will never reach it, because that would be the end of democracy'."

Mouffe also argues that the Left, by tacitly accepting the inevitability of neo-liberal capitalism and its inherent rationality, has avoided having to articulate more imaginative and equitable alternatives. She believes that a radicalised democratic practice will also have to do better than "smashing the capitalist system" and establishing "a completely new socialist system". She argues for a more nuanced understanding of capitalism and democracy that evaluates diverse and situational needs and desires, instead of generalising experiences and offering universal solutions.

And speaking of more nomadic ways of thinking, Mouffe warns intellectuals and other travelling elites that we should not forget that belonging is very important to a great many people. If we forget that, it makes it difficult to understand - and support - political movements based on particular social and cultural territories, but not necessarily geographic places, nations or states.

I take this to support my belief in local situations and politics, and in multiplicity over singularity. Like Mouffe and many others, I think we make a mistake in equating globalisation with a global community or a global cosmopolitanism. On a smaller scale, we can see resistance to this sort of homogenisation in the reactions of some countries brought under the common identity of the European Union. What we need to watch out for is when our desire to set ourselves apart - to belong - is based in opposition to an Other (as in right-wing politics) rather than as a reflection of internal heterogeneity (as in left-wing politics).

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