Roundhouse Student Journal

The Contribution of Postmodern Theory to Democracy: A Critical Assessment

Joanna Lane


First examining Laclau and Mouffe’s postmodernist ‘radical liberal democracy’ in contrast with ‘modern’ conceptions of democracy as well as other radical models of democracy, and then going on to compare it specifically to deliberative democracy as promoted by Habermas, this essay assesses the contribution of postmodern theory to the concept and practice of ‘democracy’. Laclau and Mouffe articulate a new ontological and political, but not normative, approach to democracy. This essay will outline the definition of democracy and the role of postmodern theory before exploring Laclau and Mouffe’s theoretical contributions to the concept of ‘democracy’ by exploring criticisms of their theories and the influence that postmodern thought has had on contemporary politics.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theory represents a strain of ‘reconstructive’ rather than ‘extreme’ postmodernism (Best and Keller, 1991) which specifically theorises and presents a thorough articulation of ‘democracy’. Influenced by post-structuralist conceptions of power and the subject (see, for example, Foucault and Derrida) and contrasting and overlapping with other postmodern theorists, Laclau and Mouffe’s approach is an example of how postmodern theory has been utilized to explore democracy. The emphasis of their theory is the extension of democracy to all spheres and a pluralistic conception of political struggles as exemplified by New Social Movements (NSM).

‘Democracy’ can generally be understood as ‘a method of group decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making’ (Christiano, 2006). Debates around democracy are often centred on conceptions of equality as well as the levels of equality and liberty required for its legitimization (for a discussion on modern democracy see Ketcham, 2004).

The effect of postmodern thought on our conception of democracy should be understood in relation to the theory’s intent. This analysis focuses on an approach which is characterised by its practical and ethical intent, aimed at combining theory with practice and writing with politics in a ‘reconstructive’ manner (Best and Kellner, 1991:22). The theory emulates that of the early theorists of the Frankfurt School in its insistence that theory must have the explicit objective of enhancing freedom in the sense of  positioning people as ‘producers of their own historical forms of life’ (Horkheimer, 1993:21). For example, Deleuze proclaims theory as worthless or inappropriately timed lest it be ‘used’ in support of struggle and against domination (Foucault and Deleuze, 1977:208).

The Contribution of Postmodern Theory to Democracy: A Critical Assessment - Joanna Lane [PDF file]

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