The Return of the Political

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The Return of the Political

By Chantal Mouffe
Verso, 1993
156 pp. $18.95
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This philosophical work is a good illustration of the quandary that serious thinkers on the left have in coming to terms with the end of communism. The author admits that both socialism and social democracy have failed, but she is unable to accept an "essentialist" view of liberalism based on Enlightenment principles of universal individual rights. She is also quite aware of the communitarian critiques of liberal individualism, but is not willing to follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion (in other words, that liberalism must return to a substantive conception of the common good, as embodied in various cultural traditions). Her solution is to borrow the German philosopher Carl Schmitt's concept of "the political," meaning irreducible contest over power: liberal democracy is simply an agreed framework under which there can be perpetual contest by out groups, who may have little else in common. While she is undoubtedly right that contemporary liberal individualism has somewhat reached a crisis, it seems doubtful that her preferred solution will do anything but promote liberalism's inherent atomizing tendencies.

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