The nature of democracy is an age old question. We are currently witnessing a crisis in representative democracy. Times of crisis present opportunities for questioning assumptions and asking fundamental questions including about our conceptions and practice of democracy.

Green Agenda spoke with Associate Professor Sarah Maddison about the concept of agonistic democracy and what it offers for the practice of politics.

Edited Transcript

Clare Ozich: Green Agenda is today talking with Sarah Maddison, Associate Professor of Politics at Melbourne University and the author of many books, a couple of which I hope to talk with her about today. Welcome Sarah.

Sarah Maddison: Thank you.


Clare Ozich: There’s never been a better time, I think, to re-engage in debates about what democracy is. And so I’m particularly keen to talk with you today due to your interest and work in the concept of agonistic democracy, and I’ll let you explain what that is. What is it?

Sarah Maddison: Agonistic democracy emerged, basically as a critique of deliberative democracy. So, some of the key agonistic theorists at the forefront of this movement were Chantal Mouffe, William Connolly, Bonnie Honig, and their critique of deliberation centred on many things.

But the two critiques that I think are most important in a lot of contemporary politics are, firstly, that the concept of deliberation relies on ideas of rationality and reason, and that reasonable argument is the basis through which decisions should be reached. The agonist critique of that, which I think is really important – I think we can think about a number of cases in Australia where it’s particularly important – an extreme assessment would say, “That’s all very well for educated white men,” that those of us with feelings can often…I mean what woman hasn’t been told at some point in her life that she needs to calm down and be more reasonable and be more rational? If you add to that someone who’s been through some kind of trauma, or injury, or brutality, whether at an individual level or a structural level, and you then say “Well you can only actually participate and be heard in this debate if you’re reasonable.” I think that’s a very unreasonable burden, in fact. But a lot of, particularly early, deliberative theory would say that the use of emotion in argument was actually coercive. So that’s one very important agonistic critique.

The second one that I think is really important, and particularly relevant for Greens, is the concept of consensus. So agonists, basically don’t believe in the concept of consensus. They don’t believe that consensus is a real thing. They would argue that any consensus is just a temporary stabilisation of the status quo, that it inevitably contains power imbalances, and that inevitably, it is the least powerful in a dialogue, in a discussion, who have in some way, whether consciously or otherwise, compromised their position in order to reach this thing called consensus.

[Agonists] would argue that any consensus is just a temporary stabilisation of the status quo, that it inevitably contains power imbalances

I don’t know that this is something that agonists have written about specifically, but one of the things that I’ve observed is that so much effort goes into reaching consensus. A good deliberative process will often take days to reach a consensus position. The people don’t want to revisit it then. They say, “Hey, hey, no, no, no. That’s a consensus. We reached a consensus on that. It can’t be reopened.” I think one of the things that agonisim opens up is the possibility for those decision to be much more provisional, to be much more temporary, and contingent, and I think that’s really challenging for people who believe in consensus and who put a lot of effort into reaching consensus.

But, if you accept that at some level consensus isn’t a real thing, then what do you do with that? I think in democratic politics we still only have two accepted ways of reaching a decision, majoritarianism, where the numbers have it, or consensus. I think most of us would agree that moving towards a consensus decision is a more democratic option than purely majoritarian decision, but if we accept that it’s still not adequately democratic, then we have to think again about what we do once we have that so called consensus decision, and how committed we are to preserving it at all costs.

Clare Ozich: In Greens meetings, particular big ones where there is lot of stuff going on, there’s often applause when the consensus decision is reached, and I’ve always found that horrible. Because the consensus decision is rarely a good one, and yet the very fact of reaching consensus is the thing that’s applauded, not the content of the decision and it’s implications, it’s meaning, things like that. It’s just one of those cultural things in the party.

Sarah Maddison: Absolutely. It is a challenge facing the Greens right now. With this challenge from New South Wales, and the emergence of potential factionalism in the Greens, the pushback to that, which I understand and I value, is no, we don’t have factions, we are a consensus-based party. So, if you’re a consensus-based party and you hold that value really strongly, what spaces do you endeavour to keep open to ensure that that round of applause once the consensus is reached, isn’t in fact silencing, isn’t marginalising, isn’t in fact, killing the democracy within the party. The party has to, any party has to, remain a space of debate where different ideas can emerge and push policy decisions, and push ideology, and push through different pathways. With the Greens, perhaps more than any other party in Australia right now, I think that that is really crucial.

So, if you’re not going to go down the path of factionalism, and there doesn’t seem to be the appetite for that within the party, aside from a certain faction who are pushing for a formal recognition of that. If you’re not going to be a factional party and you want to maintain your consensus basis, how can you make that consensus a process that sustains democracy, and that allows the most marginalised voices, whoever they may be, over time, to continue to pop up and say, “You know that decision we spent three days on back in 2012? That’s never really worked for us. We feel really discontented about it. What’s the process for reopening that?” Rather than being told, “Well, I’m sorry, that was a consensus decision reached by the party in 2012. It is now set in stone.”

So on the one hand, yes, it is a wonderful democratic idea to try and pursue a decision that has the maximum agreement possible, and we can call that consensus, where at some point, everyone in a room says, “Yes I will sign on to this position.” But to suggest that that then holds some special privileged status, I think is a real overreach, and I think that becomes antidemocratic very quickly.



Chantal Mouffe, Columbia GASSP, Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Clare Ozich: My entry into this concept was Chantal Mouffe. I haven’t actually read any of her books, but I’ve read some interviews and I’ve read commentary, and she has had some interesting things to say recently about what’s going on with the crisis in representative democracy and liberal democracies. In fact, she holds that there is a paradox between democracy and liberalism, and that this is what we’re witnessing, or seeing, or engaging with at the moment.

You can look at parliamentary politics at the moment, which is mostly what people think of when they think of politics. It operates a lot from the assumption that the best decisions are the ones that are consensus, or that there’s this mythical centre to aim for, there’s a right thing to get to. And that is an assumption that’s been torn apart at the moment with the rise of the right, and, in fact, Mouffe says that “democracy only has meaning when you have an agonistic struggle in which you have alternatives”, and that we shouldn’t be celebrating everyone reaching agreement, that we need democracies where there’s difference.

We talked about  the form of the Greens and consensus decision making, but that itself is a very challenging concept because we’re kind of hard-wired, almost, to think that we just need everyone to agree with us, that that’s the purpose of politics, to get everyone to agree with us, and she says no, it’s not. Politics is about difference.

So what are your thoughts on the agonistic democracy framework and what we’re seeing in the world at the moment with the rise of the right and the crisis of representative democracy?

Sarah Maddison: I think the most central and compelling argument is that what she calls the political is constituted by disagreement. That at the heart of the political must be disagreement. That is inevitable. People often think about political theories being lofty, and dense, and whatever. I think this is the most pragmatic assessment of the world. So there are lots of ways to come at that. One the one hand, yes, we look at our parliamentarians and we say yes, of course we expect disagreement in our parliaments. If all our elective representatives sat around the chambers and agreed with one another furiously, we’d be alarmed. We’d be very worried, and we accept that that kind of disagreement is okay.

We’re far less accepting of disagreement or dissent that comes from social movements. We’re less tolerant, again, of disagreement within minorities, so when, say, Aboriginal people disagree with on another, the mainstream white community will say, “How can we listen to you when you can’t even agree with yourselves?”

But I think that what Mouffe is talking about in that quote that you just read out, is another trend again, and that’s where the left, broadly progressives, have become, I think, quite smug about the morality of their progressive views. I’m guilty of this, and our response to the right, and particularly the far right, has been one of derision. We’ve mocked them, we’ve called them stupid, we’ve called them ignorant, we’ve called them racist, and what we’ve done in doing that, is that we’ve failed to engage. We haven’t actually disagreed with them in agonistic terms. We’ve sat on the sidelines and we’ve said, “Ha ha, you’re wrong. We’re so obviously right. We don’t need to talk to you.”

I think what we’ve seen in the last 12 months is, in the Bexit vote and in the Trump vote, that those voices who feel like they’ve been laughed at and ignored, saying, “Actually, you know what? There’s a lot of us, and if we can get this together and organised the way you guys have for the last few decades, this is what that looks like.” And Trump played to this perfectly. What they were saying was, “We are sick of politicians. We want real people as if politicians aren’t real people. We want real people. And Trump is a real person.” Apparently, Trump is that real person. Or, at least, he’s not a politician.

I think that part of that response has been a real failure to engage from the political class with those voices that are unpleasant, that are unpalatable, that are offensive, that are disgusting. We’re seeing it play out now in Australia around the debates about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, full of misinformation and a very confusing debate, but one that could have been had in a far more sophisticated way. Instead, we let Andrew Bolt lead that conversation, or Eric Abetz lead that conversation, and we see Richard Di Natale as a staunch opponent, whereas, wouldn’t it have been great to have seen all political parties sit down in a very public forum and say these are our positions. Not in an attempt to come to a consensus, obviously, not a real thing, not something to pursue.

The other tenant of agonism is respect, so disagreement, yes, but not abuse, not mocking, not deriding your adversaries, but respecting that you’re political adversaries are worthy opponents and worth engaging. I think it’s that respect that’s been missing. We’ve had this increasingly polarised politics in liberal democracies, and people are sick of it. Voters are turning off in droves. They just see people shouting at leach other, which is an engagement that is also not agonistic. People are running up to things with preformed, spin-doctor authored statements that they’re not going to shift from. Both the old parties are characterised by that at the moment. We never hear anything genuine and engaged from them. They’ve all got their lines that they’ve rehearsed, and voters hate it. We’ve got ample evidence that voters are turning off from that. What they want is engagement. What they want is disagreement. What they want is to be able to listen to and understand different sides of the argument, and I think the political class does tend to dismiss that. Particularly the old parties. They boil down and simplify their messages on the assumption that voters are idiots, and voters aren’t idiots. They are, most of the time, looking to understand an issue.

Clare Ozich: You talked about politics getting polarised, but the other way to look at that is that there’s polarisation, but kind of at the margins, which I guess is what polarisation would occur. But there’s a whole bunch of stuff in the middle that is actually agreed. One of the things that we don’t get a lot of engagement with in parliamentary politics is a lot of the really fundamental stuff, fundamental assumptions about what the economy is, for example, or how it should be structured. There’s a bunch of stuff that’s agreed, so the polarisation happens at these edges, but there’s not the avenues, almost, to have the engagement on some of the really fundamental stuff. [Mouffe refers to “consensus at the centre”]

Sarah Maddison: That’s been a real change since the 1990s. The 1990s was such an interesting decade, not just in Australia, but all around the world. There were movements towards really quite significant transitions in various directions, and since then as you say, things have sort of sedimented around certain key issues. I think for some of those issues like the economy, certainly if you look at some of the big challenges that Australia’s facing around refugee and asylum policy, for example, whether that agreement is genuine or not, it’s certainly seen as something to avoid talking about anymore because no one can win.

There was a sense after the 2008 global financial crisis that we might start to have a new conversation about the economy, but that quickly got shut down and we went back to the status quo there pretty quickly. So I think there are those issues where there’s a sense that there’s nothing to gain from opening the debate. There’s nothing to gain from a new conversation, and it often does take a crisis of some kind to trigger that kind of conversation. It’s a shame, I think, that the 2008 crisis was a real missed opportunity. We had sort of six months of discussion about Keynesian economics again, which undoubtedly saved Australia from the worst affects of the GFC that were felt elsewhere, but then we stopped talking about it and we went back to hard line neoliberal approach.

There’s a lot in that. It’s a reflection of power, and it’s a reflection of people’s desire to maintain a status quo that benefits the current arrangement of power rather than suggesting an alternative, and that’s not unique to Australia by any stretch of the imagination. As much as you don’t want to wish a crisis on any of us. I was talking to a cab driver the other day. They’re always such good conversations, and we were agreeing that Australian politics, at the moment, is just rubbish. I think that’s a real sentiment, that we just focus only on the issues where the two older parties are at extremes, doesn’t actually get to the issues that …

Clare Ozich: Or just create a marginal difference that’s blown out of proportion.

Sarah Maddison: Absolutely. The penalty rates decision. As if any of the major parties actually disagree with that. Labor would like to pretend that it does, but, really?

Clare Ozich: Well it’s had three positions on it in the last eight months.

Sarah Maddison: So I think that the way that politics plays out on those issues is just turning people off. There’s so little opportunity to engage and to see our politicians engage in any kind of meaningful way.

Clare Ozich: We’ve been talking a lot about parliamentary politics and the politics of liberal democracies, but politics happens in a whole bunch of other ways in our society. Politics isn’t just the machinations of our politicians, it’s whenever any of us…. I guess I should ask you what it is.

Sarah Maddison: No, tell me what you think.

Clare Ozich: Well it’s just, it’s really when any of us are acting politically, but I guess that requires a definition, too. We’ve talked about how awful parliamentary politics is at the moment and that not shifting in any real way unless there is a major crisis, and there’s probably one coming. But in the meantime, for those of us that are political in any number of ways, how is this agonistic democracy framework useful for how we approach politics outside of the parliamentary sphere?

Sarah Maddison: I think that social movements and other organisations outside of parliamentary politics have a crucial role because there’s far more opportunity there to create agonistic spaces of engagement. So another phrase that’s very common to agonism is the idea of opening political space – that what decision making generally does is close it down, that you bring people into a space of political engagement in order to reach a decision, and then as soon as the decision is made, you close it down. I think what movements do is keep a space open by continually pushing and challenging.

I think in the current moment, though, there is a sense, and I’ll have to tread very carefully when I say this because there’s a good chance that I’ll be misunderstood, there is a real tension, I think, between saying to people like Pauline Hanson, or Andrew Bolt, or George Christensen, or Reclaim Australia, “You offend me. You are disgusting. Your position is racist or Islamophobic, and I’m not going to give you a platform.” There’s a long history in progressive activism of no platforming, emerging from the anti-racist movements in Britain, anti-fascist movements in particular, and where progressive activists said, “I will not share a platform with someone who espouses that view, because it legitimises them.”

confronting racistsAnd that’s a very worthy position to take, but if the last 12 months has taught us anything, it’s that not giving those voices a platform doesn’t make them go away. It drives them underground. It drives them underground where they only talk to each other, but where they also multiply and grow in strength and confidence, and then when they re-emerge, there are more of them, and they’re more vocal, and they’re more angry. So what have we achieved by no platforming them? And I think there’s quite a radical shift required there for progressive activists to start to think differently about that mode of engagement, about what does agonistic engagement look like? No platform is literally shutting down a space. There must be an alternative to that.

So I think one of the things that agonism throws open, that we’ve already talked about, is decision making. What does it look like to make a decision and how permanent is that decision? The other big set of questions that it asks, I think, are about engagement. What does it look like to engage in an agonistic way? It’s much easier to think about, think through that, when I think about say, because a lot of my work is in Indigenous politics, I go to a lot of public forums where there’s a reasoned, deliberative debate happening about a particular issue.

A lot of the original consultations led by the expert panel about constitutional recognition, were very reasoned and rational until, inevitably, an Aboriginal person stood up at the back of the room and brought all of their pain, and anger, and hurt, and said, “Fuck constitutional recognition. I’m a sovereign being, and I want that to be recognised and I want to be having that conversation.” And swear word, swear word, swear word, anger, tears, real distress, and that space had no way of dealing with that. So very often that person would be placated, perhaps gently escorted from the room, or otherwise given a pat and told “shh, it’s okay, we’ve got this”.

I think most of us who’ve been involved in movements have probably seen that dynamic play out in some way or another, where someone brings too much feeling, stops being reasonable and rational, and just wants their anger heard, but wants that to feed into the discussion, doesn’t want that to be marginalised. So I think, thinking about how we might do that better, it’s an easier thing. I think we can think about how we can say, “Well this person does actually still share my values, broadly speaking. They might want a different outcome, but I can think of ways that I can bring them into a more respectful engagement that perhaps opens that space further and broadens the conversation.”

I think it gets much more difficult if that person stands up and starts spouting racist abuse. What we would all want to do in that moment is immediately exclude that voice and that position from the room. We would think it was disrespectful. It would be disrespectful, but we would want to shut it out, and that’s I think, a much more challenging situation. That’s, effectively, what the left has been doing for the last several decades. That’s been the standard approach.

there have been many missed opportunities where it may have been possible to conceive of a different mode of engagement in which radically opposed views on questions of race, or sexuality, or whatever, were forced to share a stage

I think a lot of what we’re seeing now in global politics is, I’m not going to shed it all home to the left, it’s not our fault, but there have been many missed opportunities where it may have been possible to conceive of a different mode of engagement in which radically opposed views on questions of race, or sexuality, or whatever, were forced to share a stage, were actually forced to share a platform and had to find ways to engage respectfully with one another. That might sound like a fantasy, but I’m not convinced that we’ve attempted that adequately.

Clare Ozich: I think one of the things that’s really challenging around that, is to have spaces where there’s no conclusion at the end. So that it’s just about having the discussion, or about listening, or about having a debate, a conversation, a fight even, around an issue, or a philosophy, or a way of seeing the world, but not actually thinking that there needs to be a resolution at the end of it. I think that’s one of the challenging things.

Sarah Maddison: The only outcome is that you might go away better informed about what someone who doesn’t think like you thinks, and why they think that way.

Clare Ozich: So it’s not about bringing them over to your side, or you going over to their side.

Sarah Maddison: And it’s not about validating them either, and that’s the anxiety, I think, the people say, “Well if I just listen or engage respectfully, that’s somehow validating that point of view.” I don’t know, are you? Is there a way of just, as you say, accepting that we need to create spaces of difference, spaces in which radical disagreement can happen, and where there is no resolution, there is no winner, but people leave that space knowing each other better and knowing each others’ positions a bit better. Not agreeing, not resolving anything, but at least not being ill-informed in quite the same way.

Because I think both sides are ill-informed. Both sides have created this unknowable other, the right and the left in Australia. Pauline Hanson and her voters are, to you and me, like, who are these people? Who hasn’t said that? Who hasn’t said that, seriously? Who are these people who vote for Pauline Hanson? Well, who are they? Who are they? We don’t know. We don’t know them.

Clare Ozich: I know some of them.

Sarah Maddison: Similarly, people on that side of the political fence would say, “Who are these people who vote for the Greens? They’re all lefty, commy, poofers” Yes, some of us are, but, you know, they don’t know us either. There hasn’t been a space of engagement, and because we rest on a system of representative democracy, we’re okay with that. We say, “Well that’s what elections are for.” That’s the mark of place of ideas and then those different representatives take those ideas into parliament and that’s the space of engagement. I don’t know. Who’s that working for? Let me see a show of hands?

So I do think that the responsibility falls back to extra parliamentary groups and organisations to be thinking really critically and asking really difficult questions of themselves about how they can create spaces of radical disagreement that are opening spaces for politics rather than closing them down.

Clare Ozich: Scary.

Sarah Maddison: It is scary. It’s genuinely scary. I think most of us would feel apprehensive about going into any sort of space of engagement with Reclaim Australia activists or Lyle Shelton and his crew who hold opinions that are not just difficult to accept, but for many of us, are profoundly hurtful. This is something I’m still thinking through, because I accept that in demanding that different kind of engagement, you’re actually asking people to be very resilient. You’re asking people to sit through and engage with ideas that are hurtful. Not just in an abstract intellectual sense, but that hurt who we are, and I think those questions are really difficult.

If I could clone myself, this is an area I really want to think through more. I draw a kind of potential link here to take us on a little bit of a detour for a minute around the need for content warnings in safe spaces and so on on university campuses, which on the one hand, I’m all for. I’m teaching gender studies at the moment. I know there are, primarily, young women, but also young men, in my lectures who have experienced abuse or who have experienced violence in their families and for whom there is going to be some potentially triggering content.

On the other hand, I don’t want to re-pathologize those young people. I want them to be or to become strong, and resilient, and not defined by any trauma that they’ve experienced. That’s what any one of us, who has survived abuse in our lives, that’s our goal. We want to be resilient and not defined by that.

So that’s a difficult space in a classroom, and I deal with that by confronting that head on and saying, “You can see the course outline, you can see where the triggering, potentially difficult content for you might come. I expect you to manage yourself in that. We won’t not be talking about those things.” There is definitely a link somewhere to that content warning movement on campus and the safe spaces that are created on campus, which have, in the U.S. there have been a number of high-profile cases where safe spaces have been used for students to no platform an invited speaker who has a controversial point of view. There’s something happening in there.

The dots are very loosely joined at the moment, but I think we need to be really careful that we’re not creating a generation of fragile people who are going to be unable to engage in this type of critical agonistic way, and, to bring in another theorist, there’s something really Foucaultian about it, as well. It’s a technology of self-management that we’re like, “Oh I have to protect myself from potentially upsetting content. I will manage myself out of this space or I will manage myself into a safe space. I won’t listen to this person who has difficult, confronting things to say because I’m a neo-liberal subject who must maintain myself in a productive space.” Lots of very loose dots there, but I hope you can see where I’m vaguely going with that.

Clare Ozich: [mention of young people paralysed by a culture of critique]

Sarah Maddison: I think that it’s certainly something that the women’s movement has grappled with over some decades. That those critiques from Aboriginal women, from immigrant women, from women of colour that said to white feminists, “Hey, you don’t actually speak for us, and your experience is not universal” were absolutely just so important and so crucial, but the white feminism just proved to be so fragile in the face of it and did kind of retreat and say, “Well you’re right, so if we can’t speak about women, maybe we can’t speak.” It’s like, come on. You need to speak carefully. And sometimes you can’t speak, sometimes you have to ask another kind of woman to speak because it’s their experience, but there are ways through this.

I see it all the time in and around Indigenous politics, white people and white students, saying I don’t know what to do. Well, you don’t get to just check your critical thinking at the door because it’s hard. You’re at university. What do you think? And if you don’t know what you think, go do some work. Do some labour, read, inform yourself.


Clare Ozich: So you mentioned your work on Indigenous politics, and I’d like to turn, now, to one of your more recent books Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation, where you use the framework of agonistic democracy to explore the political challenges facing societies attempting to transition either from violence and authoritarianism to peace and democracy, or from colonialism to post colonialism. Can you just talk us through that?

Sarah Maddison: Sure, how long have you got? That book was based on a four country comparative study looking at South Africa, Northern Ireland, Australia, and Guatemala. On the base of it really different experiences, but when you scratch the surface, some really deep similarities.

To start again with the 1990s, a decade that I think is very understudied at the moment, there were things happening in all of those places in the 90’s that seemed profoundly transformative. So we had the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland. We had a decade of reconciliation in Australia culminating with the Bridge Walks in 2000, and in Guatemala there was also a peace agreement that had been signed after years, and years, and years of negotiation. So in all those countries it seemed as though we’re at a potentially transformative moment, and none of those transformations have come to pass in quite the way that was hoped and believed.

One of the things I argue in that book is that, in most cases, there is a desire to think that transformation or reconciliation happens at just one social or political level, so it happens just at the political level. In the book I talk about the constitutional, institutional, and relational levels, but often a lot of transformative processes or reconciliation processes kind of stall at the political level, where it’s thought that if things are agreed, and written down, and signed by elites, that’s done and the work is done.

In South Africa that’s fallen over because some of the key institutions, particularly the economic institutions just did not transform. They are still apartheid era institutions. The economy was not restructured in the way that the political system was, and so that country remains deeply, deeply in trouble.

In Northern Ireland, the political transformation entrenched the key division in society. So the power sharing arrangement that fell over earlier this year, in fact structurally embedded a political division that you can still see played out. There have been more so-called peace walls built in Belfast since the agreements were signed in 1996. It is still a very insecure place for a lot of residents, particularly poor residents.

Guatemala is a tragic case. So much went wrong there including the fact that a few months after the agreements were signed, when there was a constitutional referendum to try and entrench the principles of those agreements in the constitution, less then 20% of the population turned out to vote. So the popular mandate that had driven the agreement process evaporated in the wake of the agreements when it was felt that political elites were just taking the process back over and it was going to be business as usual, which it fundamentally is, and Indigenous people in Guatemala remain incredibly marginalised and impoverished. I’m sure you can picture that situation.

bridgewalkIn Australia, where we thought that you could say that there was going to be a 10-year period of reconciliation and then it would be done, but where we said from the outset that there wasn’t going to be any structural transformation. We took that off the table. There was vague language in the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act about a document of reconciliation, which some people interpreted to mean a treaty and other people interpreted to mean nothing at all, turned out to be nothing at all. There was no restructuring of the settler colonial, and Indigenous relationship there.

In each place this kind of transformative moment fell over because there wasn’t this multi level engagement with all the things that needed to change in society, and an acceptance that, in fact, reconciliation is an ongoing, open ended, multi level process. It’s that open ended part that again brings us back to agonism. The political classes that drive a lot of that elite level political work want to see the conclusion. They want it on their CV. They want to say, “Yes, yes, I orchestrated the peace, I orchestrated the transition, or I engineered reconciliation.”

It’s much harder to say we’re going to be at this well past my lifetime. This is actually a state of being. It’s a state of living. We will always be in conflict with one another in some way. I think that’s very much the case, if we look at Australia. We can’t decolonize. The settler can’t go home. We are a settler colonial society, which means the settler is here to stay, and the underlying logic of settler colonialism is, to borrow Patrick Wolfe’s framework, the elimination of the native. Whether that’s by the violence of the early frontier years, or by later practices of assimilation. The way the settler feels legitimate is by eliminating the native.

Indigenous people, of course, respond to that by saying, “Hey, hey, hey, no.” And perpetuating a cycle of resistance against those assimilatory eliminatory efforts. So that, by it’s definition, must be an agonistic space. What we see in Australia over and over again, looking at that particular dynamic, is the way in which the settler society and Aboriginal people use transitional justice measures or use history to very different ends. What Aboriginal people are doing is saying, “here’s this thing that happened in the past, quite recent past, for us. You mob came over here, these atrocities were committed, our children were taken, we want you to understand that, but we want you to understand that not so you can draw a line under it so that you can say that’s past, that’s finished. We want you to understand that because it to be a factor that helps you decide the way we rethink this relationship. We want his past to inform our future.”

The settler is saying, “Yes, yes, yes, we understand that past. Sorry. Now we’re drawing a line under it because fair’s fair, right? We said sorry, we’re done.” This is just the most common settler dynamic. You see it in the U.S. you see it in Canada, where the past is used for very different political ends. Really, what Aboriginal people are doing is asking to keep that political space open, while the settler is asking to shut it down. So, in Australia and in the other cases in the book, and elsewhere, the challenge is to accept that these processes don’t have an obvious or easy conclusion, and to find ways to keep engaging that don’t always rely on the oppressed group, the marginalised group, the suffering group to be resisting, and to be demanding, and to be pushing this forward.

Maybe that is the way of politics and there is no other way to navigate that, but I do think that the dominant and the powerful, the settlers and others, have a responsibility to actually also keep working to keep those political spaces open. That was a long answer.

the challenge is to accept that these processes don’t have an obvious or easy conclusion, and to find ways to keep engaging that don’t always rely on the oppressed group, the marginalised group, the suffering group to be resisting, and to be demanding, and to be pushing this forward.

Clare Ozich: That was a great answer. There’s a lot in there and I think we talked before about some of the concepts of agonistic democracy being challenging and that one is huge. That this state of conflict, tension, resistance, whatever language you want to put around it, is a state of being that we’ll be living without a resolution, essentially.

Sarah Maddison: And that’s uncomfortable.

Clare Ozich: Deeply uncomfortable. We want resolution. We want things to be okay.

Sarah Maddison: Well if you’re a conservative, you don’t want change. If you’re conservative you want things to stay as they are, that’s the definition of conservatism. If you’re a progressive, you want things to change so they’re better, and then stay better. Neither side wants to accept that actually, there is no outcome. There is only ongoing engagement. That’s what the political is, thank you Chantal. That’s what the political is.

Clare Ozich: Progressive politics has it in it’s name, “progress”, that there are steps and they’re going somewhere, they’re reaching a point. We will always have different ideas of what that point might be. It’s not just progressive politics, it’s really enlightenment thinking, isn’t it?

Sarah Maddison: Absolutely. You mentioned earlier this tension between liberalism and democracy and I think that those layers of liberal thinking from the earliest kind of thinking about what liberalism is, it rests in enlightenment thinking. It suggests that if you can get this relationship between government and the people right, it will rescue people from a life that is nasty, brutish, and short, and will preserve and protect the rights of individuals. Which is, obviously in conflict with principles of democracy that recognises groups and collectives and there’s an obvious tension there.

Clare Ozich: It’s obvious but we act as if it doesn’t exist.

Sarah Maddison: We act as if liberalism and democracy are hand in hand and we never talk about the fact that all liberal democratic societies are also capitalist and what that might mean in that context. We also naturalise that, so, yeah, there’s a lot about our politics that we take for granted and we don’t historicize at all to our detriment. Progressively and conservatively. We all do that.

Clare Ozich: That’s one of the things I’m wanting to do with Green Agenda, really is to interrogate some of this stuff in this kind of way.

There was more I wanted to ask about that but it’s just all gone out of my head, so I’m going to move on but if I think of it I’ll come back. There is too much in my head.


activist wisdomI do just want to finish really briefly, because I was looking through your book, Activist Wisdom, that you co-wrote a number of years ago, which is a great book. I’m a big fan of learning from our social movement history, and books like this are important to remind us that the things that we are dealing with in our activism and our politics, they’re not new. They’ve been around for a long time and we can learn all the time. The book is based around a number of tensions that exist within activism and it uses what you call the practical knowledge of the numerous activists that you interviewed for the book.

There was one tension I particularly wanted to touch on, and that was the one between redistribution and recognition, which forms a chapter in the book, but which has really come to the forefront in light of Trump’s election. There was a mass of opinion after the Trump election where there were these two sides. One was is was all about the economy and people being done over. And the other one was, no, it was all about race or gender or other things. You wrote this book a while ago, this is not a new tension.

Sarah Maddison: Ten years ago this year it was published.

Clare Ozich: This is not a new tension, and the book is really interesting in how it talks about it. To my mind, the eye of the either/or is a bit of a nonsense. I think there’s lots of connections, but I’d be interested in your thought on how that particular debate played out after Trump.

Sarah Maddison: Well first I just wouldn’t mind saying a couple of things about the idea of creative tensions. That’s an idea that came from Martin Luther King in his famous letter that he wrote while he was in gaol. He talked about the need for the civil rights movement to raise the level of creative tension in society. So he was an early agonist, he just didn’t know it, but he was really saying exactly the same thing that Chantal Mouffe is saying about the need for tension and conflict. That that’s the way change happens. I just think it’s good to draw that intellectual link as well. I think they would’ve had much to talk about.

The recognition and redistribution framing actually comes from another theorist, from Nancy Fraser, who wrote a book called Justice Interruptus in the 90’s, that described this tension, in particular as a post-socialist challenge. The obvious thing about what was happening in the 90’s was it was the end of communism. It was the end of the Cold War. It was the end of that tension for a lot of polities around the world. Many people thought that it would bring an end to particular types of conflict.

Nancy Faser argued that posed a particular challenge for movements because we’d seen a rise of identity politics, which is the kind of recognition framing, at the same time as we were seeing the most profound arguments for redistribution kind of fall over with the Berlin Wall coming down, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The argument about centralised economy had been lost, and so what did redistribution mean now. There are kind of deep historical threads to that particular tension, and so to return Mouffe and agonism, not surprising we haven’t resolved them. The obvious answer to the endless debate post the Trump election about “no it’s the economy, no it’s gender, no it’s the economy, no it’s race,” is well of course it’s all of those things. We know that the people who are going to be most affected by economic inequality are also people who are going to be otherwise marginalised. People of colour, women, sexual ad gender minorities there also more economically vulnerable. You can’t pull those things apart.

The way identity politics is playing out in Australia at the moment is just stupid. It’s become a dirty word to say, you know that’s just “identity politics”. Identity politics are really important, actually. If you’re a member of a marginalised group being recognised is crucially important, but to suggest that once you’ve been recognised, however that might look, is the end of it for you, is ridiculous. Of course, then there’s, now that you’ve recognised my right to exist as a human being, that I have particular needs, that there are particular things that need to happen in this society for me to live a just, fair, and equal life, now I also want the economy to be redistributed in a way that doesn’t continue to disadvantage me.

If you’re a member of a marginalised group being recognised is crucially important, but to suggest that once you’ve been recognised, however that might look, is the end of it for you, is ridiculous.

So of course those things are intrinsically connected. It didn’t matter which way people sliced the voting data in the wake of the U.S. election, they kept having to come back to that conclusion. It’s more complicated in the U.S. where there are such clear divides between states -red states, and blue states – and where the democratic inadequacies of the electoral college system make that appear a much starker divide than is perhaps there. Without any kind of proportional representation you end up with a pretty harshly divided political system that is going to keep having that argument, but of course, it is all of those things, and it will always be all of those things.

To return to our earlier point, there won’t be a point at which the economy is operating in a way in which everyone feels is a just redistribution of wealth.

Clare Ozich: No communist utopia?

Sarah Maddison: No communist utopia. We won’t ever reach a point where everyone feels that, “yes I’ve been adequately recognised now, carry on elites. I’m fine now.” That’s also never going to happen. We have to accept that what the political is made of is ongoing conflict about those issues, and you know, that’s not a bad thing. That’s the other side of that. We resist this uncertainty, but we actually live with it all the time. That is our reality. Why do we keep striving for something that doesn’t exist, but that we feel until we achieve it we’ve somehow failed? Wouldn’t we have a better time if we just accepted that uncertainty, that incompletion, that uneven progress and regress is just the way of things, and to be kind to one another as much as we can and respectful along the way, and keep looking for those places to engage rather than to shut down.

Clare Ozich: To engage, not shut down, but keep our side of the struggle.

Sarah Maddison: Absolutely. Our values are important to that. There’s nothing to engage on if it’s not. Mouffe talks about the vibrant clash of passions, that that’s what politics is, and I’ve used that phase a lot when I was interviewing reconciliation and conflict transformation actors in those countries that we talked about earlier. Their eyes would light up and they’d be like, yes, those are the moments. Those are the moments when you feel like something’s happening. When there’s actually a vibrant clash of passions, that is usually, she goes on to talk about this, they’re usually over identity. These are usually over those really deeply held things that can’t change about ourselves, but it’s in those spaces of engagement, where what you’ve achieved is that vibrant clash that’s respectful, but is deeply and passionately held. That’s politics.

Clare Ozich: That is an excellent place to end this discussion. Thank you so much, Sarah. I thoroughly enjoyed that conversation.

Sarah Maddison: I love talking about politics.


Further reading:

More from Sarah Maddison on reconciliation and conflict transformation

An interview with Chantal Mouffe in the Green European Journal

Chantal Mouffe on left wing populism

Chantal Mouffe on the crisis within liberal democracy, by McKenzie Wark