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What is politics?
What is politics?

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2.1.3 Politics as conflict

You might be wondering whether anyone could actually positively value conflict. Aren’t consensus or the reconciliation of difference always a good thing? Would anyone actually argue that conflict is desirable? There are indeed those who do and who, on the basis of this perhaps counterintuitive normative judgement, offer a definition of politics with a somewhat different focus. Among these are theorists who subscribe to a school of thought known as agonism. As a political theory, agonism emphasises the positive aspect of conflict and, as such, does not see the reconciliation of difference or the resolution of conflict as the only desirable outcomes of politics. For instance, a prominent advocate of agonism, political theorist Bonnie Honig, argues for the need to identify ‘the affirmative dimension of contestation’ (Honig, 1993, p. 15).

For agonist political theorists, politics is a process that makes possible the coexistence of difference and conflict. In other words, politics is the process through which we live together with and respect those who are different, without us trying to convince them to become ‘like us’, or them trying to convince us to become ‘like them’. It is also the process through which conflict is organised, and in fact made productive, rather than erased. As another prominent agonist theorist, Chantal Mouffe argues, ‘if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and... provide an arena where differences can be confronted’ (Castle, 1998).

Agonist definitions of politics share some things in common with definitions of politics such as those put forward by Crick and Heywood. Both make the assumption, for instance, that difference and conflict are fundamental features of society and that politics offers a way of living with such difference and conflict. But arguably there are also some differences. There seems, for instance, to be a normative difference, with agonist theorists placing greater emphasis on the desirability and productive aspects of conflict, as opposed to the search for conciliation. Indeed, for some agonist theorists the persistence of difference and discord is precisely what indicates the existence of freedom.