May 20, 2024

Politics And Its Double – Deleuze And Political Ontology, Part 2 (Borna Radnik)

The following is the second of a four-part series.  The first can be found here.

Politics and the Political

There is nothing political about ontology if by “ontology” we simply mean the science of being qua being. It may seem presumptuous to declare that ontology has anything to offer political theory, but the turn towards ontology in political theory conceives of ontology differently than the traditional Western conception. Rather than placing emphasis on the question of being as such the thinkers concerned with political ontology focus their attention on the human being. The various aspects of human experience and existence, such as the self, death, the unconscious mind, relations with others whether human or nonhuman, and so on, constitute the concerns of the ontological turn.

Any reader of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense will appreciate that these works are not primarily concerned with political issues. That is, if by “political issues” we mean those ranging from the nature of the state and governance, organization of social institutions, negative and positive liberties, and theories of justice, then Deleuze’s work is not concerned with these questions, at least not explicitly.

Two canonical examples of works in the Western philosophical tradition that do explicitly deal with these topics are Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s The Social Contract. If one were to compare these classical works of political philosophy with Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, for example, it becomes clear that the former works are concerned with political issues and ideas, while the latter is a metaphysical exploration of the concepts of repetition and difference. Political issues, as we have defined them, do not enter into Deleuze’s investigation.

One could conclude from this that insofar as Deleuze does not explicitly deal with normative political issues, his ontology has no bearing on politics whatsoever. Implicit in this conclusion, however, is the presupposition that ontology and politics do not converge. That is, unless a work of ontology explicitly discusses political ideas (e.g., justice, liberty, equality, etc.), then it is de facto not political.

It is this presupposition that is undermined in the recent ontological turn in political theory. As we saw above, the ontological turn concerns itself with the notion of ‘political ontology’ and its relevance for political theory. Given that the contention around Deleuze’s political import with respect to his single authored texts mainly concerns whether or not his ontology ought to be considered political, it is crucial to clarify what we mean by the terms ‘politics’ and the political.

There is a difficulty when trying to define “politics” and “the political” in that the thinkers who champion the difference between the two terms rarely agree on their meaning. Nevertheless, we can think of the difference between politics and the political as a difference in approach.

It was mentioned earlier that within the ontological turn in political theory the kind of ontology that interests the theorists concerns the existence and experience of being human, rather than being qua being. Implicit in the discussion about the distinction between politics and the political is the idea that human society is the product of human beings, our relations, institutions, and so on. That is to say, we humans create society and its institutions. Far from being a mere triviality, this point is crucial to understand the conceptual difference between ‘politics’ and the political.

Politics” refers to the conventional, mainstream understanding of the term, one that is generally associated with empirical phenomena such governance, state affairs, institutional policies, elections, human rights, and so on. These can be generally understood to be facts about society. Politics in this sense, can be said to reflect the empirical facts about human beings in society, their activities, practices, and so on. This approach to politics is what concerns political science. The concept of the political refers to something entirely different.

If political science has traditionally concerned itself with the empirical field of politics, political theory in general investigates the essence of the political. To ask what the essence of something is, is to seek to define that necessary kernel or characteristic which makes something what it is. So when we seek to define the essence of the political, we are seeking to determine its definitive element.

For example, Chantal Mouffe’s conception of the political refers to antagonisms between human beings which she maintains are essential and constitutive to any society whatsoever. This antagonism is certainly empirically illustrated in society as facts about society, but its root lies in intrinsic claims about what it means to be human.

It is a known empirical fact that there are specific kinds of antagonisms present in our contemporary society: antagonisms of between classes, ethnicities, religions, genders, and so on. Insofar as we consider these antagonisms only through empirical means (e.g., statistical data), all we ascertain about these antagonisms are a confirmation of their occurrence, and a breakdown of its components (e.g., x many people turned out to vote during the elections, there were y number of protestors at the rally, and so on).

It is also an empirically known fact that in 2011, when hundreds of thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest Hosni Mubarak’s government, but this fact does not tell us anything more about the event. Empirical facts may reflect the essence of the political (e.g., antagonism), but in order to explain what that essence is and justify it, we need to enter the domain of the political.

 The crucial point is that whether or not human beings are innately antagonistic is a disputable claim. It is an ontological claim that human beings are antagonistic, one which depends on the type of ontology one adopts and commits to. If the ontology I subscribe to does not hold that antagonism is an inherent property of what it means to be human, then my definition of the essence of the political will necessarily be different than Mouffe’s. It will no longer depend on the idea of human antagonism. It is ontologically contestable that antagonism is an implicit trait of human beings, and so ontological claims about being human, inevitably end up influencing one’s conception of the political.

Furthermore, given that the theorists within the ontological turn in political theory disagree over the exact meaning of the political, their disagreement in fact revolves around what constitutes the essence of the political (e.g., antagonism, etc.). However, the essence of the political (whatever it may be) does not exist in some vacuum independent of human beings. On the contrary, politics is of course a human phenomenon and it arises out of human activity within a social context.

Thus, when we seek to define the essence of the political, its definition inevitably ends up being influenced by ontological claims about human beings. The discourse of human characteristics is the discourse of the ontology of being human. It is this kind of ontology that concerns the ontological turn in political theory.

 So, while the term “politics” refers to factual human practices and activities in society, the political refers to the constitutive dimensions of human societies, which are influenced by ontological claims of what it means to be human. To help better clarify the difference, let us briefly consider Mouffe’s account of the distinction: “by the political I mean the dimension of antagonism which I take to be constitutive of human societies, while by ‘politics’ I mean the set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political”. (9)

So for Mouffe while human antagonism is an essential ingredient of any human society, what ultimately gives shape to the social order are human activities and social institutions within the context of this antagonism.

For example, the institution of the prison system can be explained by Mouffe’s concept of the political, insofar as dividing up a society’s populace on the basis of those who uphold the law and those who break it is seen as an antagonistic relation. Prisoners and non-prisoners are antagonistic insofar as they are interpreted on the basis of a ‘we’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy.

The point is that identifying the prisoners as prisoners can only be achieved relative to the identification of non-prisoners as non-prisoners. If you break the law and are accordingly punished for it, you are judged in relation to the rest of the population that did not break this law and has maintained the peace. This is all to say that the concept of the political, as antagonism for example, describes an integral, constitutive part of human society, which finds its origin in the human being.The explanation of society’s formation will depend on how the ontology in question seeks to account for human existence and experience. Thus, at the core of the political are ontological claims about being human.  Or to put it another way: politics concerns the empirical activity of human beings within society, while the political attempts to conceptualize the formation of society by turning towards the intrinsic ontological traits of human beings.

While politics only refers to the empirical practices of human beings in society, “the political” encompasses a more fundamental and essential level of what constitutes politics because it aims to explain the essential human characteristics that inform the formation of societies. This does not mean that the formation of human societies can be reduced to essential ontological claims about being human, but rather that what it means to be human certainly plays an important role in society’s foundation. To put it rather crudely using Mouffe’s conception as an example: empirical facts tell us that there are antagonisms among human beings in society, while ontological claims about being human tells us why those antagonisms exist.

 How did this conceptual distinction arise? We will briefly look at Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political, and then consider the appropriation of the term by Mouffe. The conception of the political that interests us in relation to Deleuze’s ontology is similar to both Schmitt and Mouffe insofar as it concerns the formation of society. Both Schmitt and Mouffe conceive of the political as essentially being a matter of antagonisms.

It is this antagonism that constitutes the ontological dimension of human societies because it is an inherent characteristic of being human, one that influences how we relate to one another in society.  Emphasis on antagonism presupposes certain ontological commitments, namely the law of identity.  Thus, the political is the name given to a dimension of society that is justified by ontology. Given the approach to ontology one takes, the conception of the political will differ. This will become clear below.

 The importance of Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political and its contribution to understanding the political/politics difference should not be underestimated. As Marchart notes, Schmitt has been credited with the invention of the term “the political” in political theory.  For Schmitt, the concept of the political is to be understood in terms of the friend/enemy distinction. It is through the ability to distinguish between friends (or allies) and enemies that a state functions in relation to other states. This is in contrast to politics, which for Schmitt is simply another word for the state.

The problem with this conception of politics is that it loses validity when state and society no longer stand as opposing forces, but become wholly integrated, so that affairs of state and social relations become two aspects of one and the same concrete, integrated reality. Schmitt attributes this change in the state to the twentieth century, and argues that otherwise neutral domains such as education, economy, law or religion are now in danger of becoming politicized insofar as the state holds dominion over them. Under this equation of the state with politics, every domain of human life and interaction can potentially be considered to belong to the political. Friend-enemy relations are not limited to relations between states but now divide whole societies internally.

 Schmitt stresses the importance of thinking about the political as a concept based on the distinction of friend and enemy. For Schmitt, this difference between friend and enemy is one that is independent insofar as it does not rest upon other antagonisms (e.g. good and evil, or right and wrong). It is a distinction which “denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation.”(26)

According to Schmitt, the enemy is a person or collective for which there is a possibility of combat, which may ultimately lead to killing the enemy whoever it may be. It is key to note that for Schmitt, any human grouping (social, religious, cultural, economic, etc.), has the potential to turn political once the friend-enemy antagonism becomes strong enough. The possibility of otherwise “non-political” human groups to turn into political ones makes the friend-enemy antagonism the most fundamental because it subordinates all other distinctions.

For example, I may recognize other people as being alien to me based on their religion, however if those same individuals are seen as a threat, as an enemy, then the terms by which I distinguish them become political as opposed to remaining religious. It is this Schmittian ability to draw the friend-enemy distinction that allows us to qualify an otherwise seemingly ‘neutral’ human activity as political.

 Even though Schmitt joined the Nazi Party in 1933, his contributions to political theory have witnessed something of a revival within Leftist social and political thought in the recent years, including the ‘ontological turn.’41 One such example is Chantal Mouffe. Mouffe’s project is to “think with Schmitt, against Schmitt, and to use his insights to strengthen liberal democracy against his critiques.”(2)  Like Schmitt, who maintains the antagonism between friend and enemy, Mouffe’s conception of the political refers to the “dimension of antagonism that [she] take[s] to be constitutive to human societies.”(9)

 Rather than directly adopting Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction as defining the political, Mouffe broadens the scope of the political and holds that Schmitt’s conception is merely one of many forms of conceiving the antagonism. For Mouffe, any we/they distinction, whether it be conceived in terms of friend/enemy, proletariat/bourgeois, black/white, male/female, and so on, is a fundamental condition necessary for the formation of political identities (e.g., I am identified as working class and therefore am excluded from the privileges associated with the capitalist).

Political identities emerge from social relations between human beings, and these identities inevitably enter into an antagonistic relationship akin to Mouffe’s we/they distinction. Following Schmitt, Mouffe holds that one of the central characteristics of being human is to make a “we/they” distinction, when pushed to the extreme, becomes a political antagonism. This distinction has the potential to become antagonistic, and when it does, the we/they distinction becomes political. the political, for Mouffe, functions on a inclusion/exclusion basis.  Mouffe’s overall concern is to reconcile the we/they antagonism she maintains is essential to all political considerations with the pluralism of liberal democracy. Mouffe’s argument about how this reconciliation is supposed to work does not concern us here; rather what interests us is her emphasis on human antagonism.

 Both Schmitt and Mouffe rely on the logic of antagonism to define the political. For Schmitt, it is the ability to distinguish between friends and enemies, for Mouffe it is any ‘we’ and ‘they’ distinction that eventually transforms into a political antagonism.

However, before we can distinguish between friends and enemies, or a “we” and a “they”, we need to have a political identity that can be contrasted to some other identity. For example let’s consider class antagonism (e.g., proletariat and bourgeoisie). In order for class antagonism, or class struggle to exist, the two opposing classes must first be identified. I can only be said to be in a class struggle or antagonism if I am first identified as a member of the working class (i.e., proletariat), and then opposed to the capitalist class.

According to Mouffe, Schmitt’s conception of the political illustrates the antagonistic dimension inherent in human existence, and thus highlights the ontological dimension of “the political”. Mouffe explains the role ontology plays in her concept of the political by pointing out that “when we accept that every identity is relational and that the condition of existence of every identity is the affirmation of a difference, the determination of an ‘other’ is going to play the role of a ‘constitutive outside,’ it is possible to understand how antagonisms arise.”(2)

The crucial point here is that Mouffe conceives of identity as relational and that this claim about identity is an ontological claim. The concept of the political as antagonism rests on a certain ontological understanding of how the categories of identity and difference work in relation to the human being. This is not to say that all political theory relies on ontological categories or presuppositions, but rather only that of those theorists who work in the ontological turn.

Political ontology can be defined as the influence of principles concerning human relations in society from principles that constitute the human being. Traditionally, ontology has concerned itself with the question of being qua being. The approach to ontology one adopts will determine how human beings are described and accounted for. Within the ontological turn in political theory, the category of identity has played an important role in informing political thought.

The construction of political identity has been a central theme within the ontological turn as well. For example, Mouffe holds that a constitutive component of what it means to be human is to identify and oppose other human beings. Mouffe defines the political as an antagonism that highlights society’s ontological dimension because it captures an essential ontological condition of what it means to be human.

For Mouffe, this dimension is that human beings inevitably group themselves according to the logic of inclusion/exclusion which functions as an institutional factor in human societies.47 That is to say, the fact that we assume certain identities while simultaneously contrasting and excluding others is part of the ontological condition of what it means to be a human being. While Mouffe does not explicitly state that she subscribes to a specific ontology, it is fair to claim that her emphasis on the political as antagonism relies on an ontology that accounts for how we form our political identities. Or to put it differently, in order to define the political as essentially antagonistic, it relies on the ontological category of identity. As Widder notes

 The centrality of identity in political theory’s ontological turn has meant that many theorists treat it as a problematic but still indispensable category. While the displacement of identity—and with it the political subject—is considered crucial for the development of pluralist and democratic politics, it is still a sine qua non for politics, ethics, meaning and even thinking as such. In so far as identity holds this status, so too do the categorizes associated with it, including opposition, negation and, in the case of theories of identity associated with dialectics or theories of lack, some form of constitutive exclusion.

But what if one subscribes to an ontology that favours a concept of difference, rather than identity? The political implications of an ontology of difference is one that is offered by Deleuze’s work.

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