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politics, philosophy & economics

SAGE Publications Ltd London Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi 1470-594X 200506 4(2) 221231


The limits of John Rawlss pluralism

Chantal Mouffe
University of Westminster, UK


This article brings to the fore the shortcomings of the type of pluralism advocated by John Rawls both in Political Liberalism and in The Law of Peoples. It is argued that by postulating that the discrimination between what is and what is not legitimate is dictated by rationality and morality, Rawlss approach forecloses recognition of the properly political moment. Exclusions are presented as being justified by reason and the antagonistic dimension of politics is not acknowledged. This article also takes issue with Rawlss realistic utopia, asserting that despite the reference to decent hierarchical societies, it amounts to a universalization of the western liberal model. simple pluralism, reasonable pluralism, negation of the political, antagonism, agonism, public reason


With the current intensification of ethnic and nationalistic conflicts across the world and the rise in terrorist activities, an adequate understanding of the nature of the political has become a pressing necessity for political philosophy. Alas, much of the present theorizing, dominated as it is by a rationalist perspective, is unable to even formulate the apposite questions. I will argue that the main shortcoming of the new liberal paradigm elaborated by John Rawls, which has become so influential, is that although it calls itself political liberalism, this type of liberal philosophizing, because of its incapacity to grasp the antagonistic dimension which is constitutive of the political, cannot provide the theoretical framework needed by democratic societies in order to face the challenges they are currently confronting. My argument will be organized around the analysis of Rawlss conception of

DOI: 10.1177/1470594X05052539 Chantal Mouffe is Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Social and Political Studies, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2UW, UK [email: mouffec@wmin.ac.uk]


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pluralism, whose shortcomings I intend to bring to the fore. I begin by drawing on the critique of Political Liberalism that I have developed in The Return of the Political1 and The Democratic Paradox,2 centring my attention on Rawlss conception of politics in a well-ordered liberal society. Then I will move to the field of international politics and examine the main theses put forward by Rawls in The Law of Peoples. In both cases, I intend to show how Rawls forecloses the recognition of the properly political moment by postulating that the discrimination between what is legitimate and what is not legitimate is dictated by morality and rationality. In that way exclusions are presented as rationally justified and the antagonistic dimension of politics is whisked away. Liberalism appears as the truly moral and rational solution to the problem of how to organize human coexistence and its universalization becomes the aim of all those who are moved by moral and rational considerations.

The liberal problem

At the heart of liberalism is the problem of establishing peaceful coexistence among people with different conceptions of the good. For many liberals, the solution lies in the creation of a modus vivendi or, as Schumpeter would say, a modus procedendi that regulates the conflict among different views. Hence their conception of democracy as a procedural form, neutral with respect to any particular set of values, a mere method for making public decisions. While granting that liberalism must allow the peaceful coexistence of different conceptions of the good, political liberalism takes issue with such an interpretation of the liberal principle of neutrality. It affirms that a liberal democratic society needs a stronger form of consensus than a simple modus vivendi on mere procedures. Its aim should be the creation of a moral and not only prudential type of consensus around its basic institutions. Rawls and his followers advocate an approach the objective of which is to provide a moral, albeit minimal, consensus on political fundamentals. Their political liberalism aims at delineating a core morality that specifies the terms under which people with different conceptions of the good can live together in political association. It is an understanding of liberalism that claims to be compatible with the fact of pluralism and the existence of moral and religious disagreement and intends distinguishing itself from comprehensive views such as those of Kant and Mill. Given that it is neutral with respect to controversial views of the good life, political liberals believe that their liberalism can provide the political principles that should be accepted by all despite their differences. According to Rawls, the problem of political liberalism can be formulated in the following way: How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?3 The problem is for him one of political justice, which requires the establishment of fair terms of social cooperation

Mouffe: The limits of John Rawlss pluralism

between citizens envisaged as free and equal, but also as divided by profound doctrinal conflict.

Which pluralism?
Rawlss solution, as presented in Political Liberalism, emphasizes the notion of reasonable pluralism. He invites us to distinguish between what would be a mere empirical recognition of opposed conceptions of the good, the fact of simple pluralism, and what is the real problem facing liberals: how to deal with a plurality of incompatible, yet reasonable doctrines. He sees such a plurality as the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of a constitutional democratic regime. This is why a conception of justice must be able to gain the support of all reasonable citizens despite their deep doctrinal disagreements on other matters. In The Return of the Political, I have shown how this distinction between simple and reasonable pluralism allows Rawls to present as a moral exigency what is in fact a political decision. It serves to avoid acknowledging the antagonistic nature of the political and the fact that no regime, not even a liberal one, can pretend to have a privileged claim on rationality. Let us examine this question closely. Avowedly, this distinction aims at securing the moral character of the consensus on justice which precludes that a compromise should be made with unreasonable views, that is, those which would oppose the basic principles of political morality. For Rawls, reasonable persons are persons who have realized their two moral powers to a degree sufficient to be free and equal citizens in a constitutional regime, and who have an enduring desire to honor fair terms of cooperation and to be fully cooperating members of society.4 However, when we scrutinize this definition, which might seem unproblematic at first sight, it becomes clear that it is an indirect way of asserting that reasonable persons are those who accept the fundamentals of liberalism. In other words, the function of this distinction between reasonable and unreasonable is to draw a boundary between the doctrines that accept liberal principles and the ones who oppose them. It means that its function is a political one, since it aims at discriminating between a permissible pluralism of religious, moral, or philosophical conceptions (as long as those views can be relegated to the sphere of the private and satisfy liberal principles) and what would be an unacceptable pluralism because it would jeopardize the dominance of liberal principles in the public sphere. What Rawls is really indicating with such a distinction is that there cannot be pluralism as far as the principles of the political association are concerned and that conceptions which refuse the principles of liberalism are to be excluded. I have no quarrel with him on this issue. But this is the expression of an eminently political decision, not the result of a moral requirement. To call the anti-liberals unreasonable is a rather disingenuous way of stating that such views cannot be admitted as legitimate within the framework of a liberal democratic regime. This

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is indeed the case and the reason for such an exclusion is that antagonistic principles of legitimacy cannot coexist within the same political association without putting in question the political reality of the state. However, to be properly formulated, such a thesis calls for a theoretical framework that asserts the primacy of the political association which is precisely what liberalism denies. This is why Rawls has to pretend that it is a moral distinction. He gets caught in a circular form of argumentation: political liberalism can provide a consensus among reasonable persons who by definition are persons who accept the principles of political liberalism.

Overlapping consensus or constitutional consensus?

To discern the consequences of that avoidance of the primacy of the political, let us turn to another aspect of Rawlss solution to the liberal problem: the creation of an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines in which each of them endorses the political conception from its own point of view. In Political Liberalism, he declares that when the society is well ordered, the overlapping consensus is established on the principles of his theory of justice as fairness. Since they are chosen thanks to the device of the original position with its veil of ignorance, those principles of the fair terms of cooperation satisfy the liberal principle of legitimacy that requires that they are endorsed by all citizens who are free and equal (as well as reasonable and rational) and addressed to their public reason. According to the standpoint of political liberalism, those principles are expressly designed to gain the reasoned support of citizens who affirm reasonable, though conflicting comprehensive doctrines. Indeed, the very purpose of the veil of ignorance is to preclude knowledge of citizens comprehensive conceptions of the good and to force them to proceed from shared conceptions of society and person, required in applying the ideals and principles of practical reason.5 In line with his project of establishing political liberalism as a distinct liberal doctrine, Rawls stresses that such an overlapping consensus must not be confused with a simple modus vivendi. He insists that it is not merely a consensus on a set of institutional arrangements based on self-interest, but the affirmation on moral grounds of principles of justice that have themselves a moral character. Moreover, he indicates that an overlapping consensus should be distinguished from a constitutional consensus, which, in his view, is not deep or wide enough to secure justice and stability. In a constitutional consensus, he states, while there is agreement on certain basic political rights and liberties on the right to vote and freedom of political speech and association, and whatever else is required for the electoral and legislative procedures of democracy there is disagreement among those holding liberal principles as to the more exact content and boundaries of these rights and liberties, as well as on what further rights and liberties are to be counted as basic and so merit legal if not constitutional protection.6

Mouffe: The limits of John Rawlss pluralism

Rawls grants that a constitutional consensus is better than a modus vivendi because there is a real allegiance to the principles of a liberal constitution that guarantees certain basic rights and liberties and establishes democratic procedures for moderating political rivalry. Nevertheless, given that those principles are not grounded in certain ideas of society and person of a political conception, disagreement subsists concerning the status and content of those rights and liberties, and that creates insecurity and hostility in public life. Hence the importance of fixing their content once and for all. This is provided by an overlapping consensus on a conception of justice as fairness, which establishes a much deeper consensus than one that would be restricted to constitutional essentials.7 To be sure, in The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, Rawls stresses that The content of public reason is given by a family of political conceptions of justice and not by a single one. There are many liberalisms and related views and thereby many forms of public reason specified by a family of reasonable political conceptions. Of these, justice as fairness, whatever its merits, is but one.8 It seems, therefore, that he accepts that a society might be well ordered even if justice as fairness is not the conception of justice shared by everybody. However, this acceptance of a plurality of liberalisms does not leave much more room for the kind of agonistic debate which, as I will argue in a moment, is a requisite for a vibrant democratic society. Rawls admits that constitutional essentials (that is, fundamental principles that specify the general structure of government and the political process as well as the basic rights and liberties of citizenship) are more urgent to settle, but he considers that they must be distinguished from the principles governing social and economic inequalities. The aim of justice as fairness is to establish a consensus on a public reason whose content is given by a political conception of justice. This content has two parts: substantive principles of justice for the basic structure (the political values of justice) and guidelines of enquiry and conceptions of virtue that make public reason possible (the political values of public reason).9 The important point to note is that Rawls seems to believe that, while rational agreement among comprehensive moral, religious and philosophical doctrines is impossible, it can nevertheless be reached among political values. Once the controversial doctrines have been relegated to the sphere of the private, it should therefore be possible to establish in the public sphere a type of consensus grounded on reason (with its two sides: the rational and the reasonable). This is a consensus that it would be illegitimate to call into question once it has been reached and the only possibility of destabilization would be an attack from the outside by the unreasonable forces. When a well-ordered society has been achieved, those who take part in the overlapping consensus should have no right to question the existing arrangements since they embody the principles of justice. If somebody does not comply, it must be due to irrationality or unreasonableness. Clearly, the Rawlsian well-ordered society does not leave much room for dissent. True, Rawls recognizes that a full overlapping consensus might never be

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achieved but at best approximated, since it is more likely that the focus of an overlapping consensus will be a class of liberal conceptions acting as political rivals.10 However, even in his later work, he does question the view that we should strive for a society where, given that there is no more conflict between political and economic interests, such a rivalry has been overcome and that the ideal would be to reach an overlapping consensus on justice as fairness.

Political liberalism and the end of politics

As I argued in The Democratic Paradox, the conclusion that we can draw from scrutinizing the nature of the overlapping consensus is that Rawlss ideal society is a society from which politics has been eliminated. A set of liberal conceptions of justice are mutually recognized by reasonable and rational citizens who act according to its injunctions. They probably have very different and even conflicting conceptions of the good, but those are strictly private matters and they do not interfere with their public life. Conflicts of interests about economic and social issues (if they still arise) are resolved smoothly through discussions within the framework of public reason, by invoking the principles of justice that are endorsed by everybody. If an unreasonable or irrational person happens to disagree with that state of affairs and has an intent to disrupt the consensus, she must be forced, through coercion, to submit to the principles of justice. In a rather disingenuous way, Rawls claims that, given that the persons over whom it is exercised are unreasonable, this is a type of coercion that does not entail oppression. This allows him to conclude that liberals can coerce people who disagree with them while remaining, as he puts it, beyond reproach! This is, I think, a very problematic way for a liberal pluralist to envisage the well-ordered society. The problem lies, in my view, in Rawlss flawed conception of politics, which is reduced to the mere activity of allocation among competing interests susceptible to a rational solution. This is why he believes that political conflicts can be eliminated thanks to a conception of justice that appeals to individuals idea of rational advantage within the constraints established by the reasonable. According to his theory, citizens need as free and equal persons the same goods because their conceptions of the good (however distinct their content) require for their advancement roughly the same primary goods, that is, the same basic rights, liberties, and opportunities, and the same all-purpose means such as income and wealth, with all of these supported by the same social bases of self-respect.11 Therefore, once the just answer to the problem of distribution of those primary goods has been found, the rivalry that previously existed in the political domain disappears. Besides postulating the possibility of an agreement on justice, such a scenario presupposes that political actors are only driven by what they see as their rational self-advantage. Passions are erased from the realm of politics, which is reduced to a neutral field of competing interests. As some critics of Rawls have pointed

Mouffe: The limits of John Rawlss pluralism

out, it is quite revealing that he had to exclude the phenomenon of envy from his model. It would indeed have destabilized his entire construction.12 Completely missing from such an approach is the political in its dimension of antagonism. This is indeed precisely what political liberalism is at pains to eliminate. It offers us a picture of the well-ordered society as one from which antagonism, violence, power, and repression have disappeared. But it is only because they have been made invisible through a clever stratagem: the distinction between simple and reasonable pluralism. Exclusions are justified by declaring that they are the product of the free exercise of public reason that establishes the limits of a possible consensus. When a point of view is excluded, it is because this is required by the exercise of reason. In that way, rationality is the key to solving the paradox of liberalism: how to eliminate its adversaries while remaining neutral.

An agonistic conception of democracy

Rawls is no doubt right to affirm that a political conception of liberalism needs to distinguish itself from the different philosophical conceptions that are usually associated with liberalism. This is clearly necessary to envisage the conditions of a pluralist democracy. Moreover, it is also true that a liberal democratic society requires the existence of a consensus on a certain number of basic institutions. It is certainly the case that one of the problems facing democratic societies today concerns the limits of pluralism. A total pluralism would indeed endanger the liberal institutions which provide the very conditions for the possibility of pluralism. But it is completely mistaken to present those limits as being grounded on morality or on rationality. No state or political order, not even a liberal one, can exist without some form of exclusion. To present the institutions of liberal democracy as the outcome of deliberative rationality is to reify them and make their contestation impossible. The fact that, like any other regime, pluralist democracy constitutes a system of relations of power is denied and the democratic challenging of those forms of power becomes illegitimate. I certainly do not want to argue in favour of a total pluralism, but I consider that the exclusions linked to the limits of pluralism need to be recognized for what they are (that is, as exclusions that do entail a form of oppression) instead of being concealed under the veil of rationality. The specificity of pluralist democracy does not reside in the absence of domination or violence, but in the establishment of a set of institutions through which they can be limited and contested. This requires relinquishing the very idea that there could exist such a thing as a rational political consensus, a consensus that would not be based on any form of exclusion. To present the aim of a well-ordered society as reaching such a consensus is profoundly inimical to democracy. What such a view implies is that, once such a consensus has been obtained, it cannot be legitimately challenged. My contention is that the kind of consensus needed in a pluralist

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democracy is a conflictual consensus. What I mean is that, while there should be consensus on what I call the ethico-political principles of the liberal democratic regime, that is, liberty and equality for all, there should always exist the possibility of serious dissent about their interpretation, a dissent that can never be overcome thanks to rational procedures. It is the tension between consensus on the principles and dissensus about their interpretation which constitutes the very dynamics of pluralist democracy. Such a tension can never be reconciled and the project of deliberative democrats such as Rawls (and Habermas, albeit in a different way) of trying to reconcile the logics of liberty and equality, of human rights and popular sovereignty, of liberalism and democracy (whose articulation is constitutive of liberal democracy) not only is bound to fail, it also has very negative consequences for the way we envisage democratic politics. My own position is that we should acknowledge what I take to be the paradox of democracy and that instead of trying to eliminate dissent, we should envisage the category of the adversary as central for democratic politics. Contrary to enemies who do not have any shared principles and whose confrontation is of an antagonistic nature, adversaries have different interpretations of shared principles and they fight for their interpretation to become hegemonic. This struggle among adversaries, which I have referred to as agonistic, is what democratic politics is really about and one should never try to put an end to the agonistic confrontation. Now, as we have seen, this is precisely what Rawls is attempting when he declares that one needs to go beyond a constitutional consensus because in such a consensus disagreement still exists concerning the status and content of the basic political rights and liberties and that this creates insecurity and hostility in public life. In fact, what his approach aims at erasing is the very place of the adversary. This is why, if it was ever realized, his ideal democratic society would be one where the agonistic struggle has come to an end. I believe that this is a deeply inadequate conception of pluralist democracy which could have very negative consequences for democratic politics. Indeed, we are already witnessing the consequences of advocating a consensual form of politics. In my recent work, for instance, I have argued that the growth of rightwing populist parties in many European countries should be seen as the result of the type of politics at the centre which has become predominant in recent years. With the blurring of the frontiers between left and right, conflicts cannot be expressed any more through the traditional democratic channels hitherto provided by party politics. Contrary to the claim made by Third Way theorists that the adversarial model of politics has become obsolete, this lack of a truly agonistic debate between adversaries does not represent progress for democracy (which would supposedly have become more mature), but something that can really endanger democratic institutions. The fact that democratic citizens do not have the possibility of choosing among real alternatives within the political system any more is at the origin of the dissatisfaction that right-wing dema228

Mouffe: The limits of John Rawlss pluralism

gogues are busy exploiting, presenting themselves as the only alternative to the establishment.

The Law of Peoples

Moving now to the field of international politics, I want to show that, when he applies his approach to this field, Rawls proceeds in the same problematic way as in Political Liberalism when distinguishing between simple and reasonable pluralism. In The Law of Peoples, the distinction that he makes between liberal peoples and decent peoples, when it is examined closely, reveals that the condition to be recognized as decent peoples by the liberals amounts, in fact, to accepting liberal principles, even if it is a weak version. When he determines the criteria for decent hierarchical societies Rawls declares that:
a decent society is not aggressive and engages in war only in self-defense. It has a common idea of justice that assigns human rights to all its members; its basic structure includes a decent consultation hierarchy that protects these and other rights and ensures that all groups in society are decently represented by elected bodies in the system of consultation. Finally, there must be a sincere and not unreasonable belief on the part of the judges and officials who administer the legal system that the law is indeed guided by a common good idea of justice.13

There are, in fact, two main criteria to be fulfilled: first, to accept human rights; second, to have a decent consultation hierarchy. The main difference with liberal societies is that a decent hierarchical societys conception of the person as implied by the second criterion, does not require acceptance of the liberal idea that persons are citizens first and have equal basic rights as equal citizens. Rather, it views persons as responsible and cooperating members of their respective groups.14 According to Rawls, the main characteristic of these decent societies is that they are associationist in form, that is, their members are viewed in public life as members of different groups and each group is represented in the legal system by a body in a decent consultation hierarchy. In a very revealing way he makes reference to Hegel and declares that a decent hierarchical society might hold a view similar to Hegels: persons belong first to estates, corporations, and associations, that is, to groups. Now, if the difference between reasonable and decent societies amounts to a difference between Kant and Hegel, it is clear that what is really at stake is a difference between different forms of liberalism. This is confirmed by Rawls declaring that in a decent hierarchical society (comprehensive) religious or philosophical doctrines must not be fully unreasonable and that these doctrines must admit a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience and freedom of religion and thought, even if these freedoms are not equal for all members of the decent society as they are in liberal societies. The conclusion that we can draw from these considerations is that what this distinction between liberal and non-liberal decent peoples really expresses is a

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distinction between a strong and a weak form of liberalism or, rather, an individualist liberalism versus a communitarian one. No wonder that Rawls can assert that decent societies would accept and follow the Law of Peoples stipulated by the liberals. What about other societies? Rawls asserts that they are either to be treated as outlaws (which justifies the use of force to make them comply) or induced to become liberal or decent. Who decides where to draw the line? Of course, it is the liberals and the refusal to tolerate some societies is presented as a consequence of liberalism and decency. Here again, the boundary is drawn in a political way, while the political nature of the discrimination is denied. Liberals dictate what is legitimate and they do it according to what fits with their basic premises, but since those premises are presented as the expression of the reasonable, they cannot be challenged and those who are outlawed cannot even protest their condemnation by the world society.15 This time I am unable to follow Rawls even part of the way and I find his realistic utopia, as he puts it, profoundly alarming. I believe that in the international arena such views are very dangerous because, far from fostering peace, they are likely to lead to war in the name of spreading the reasonable. Any ideal of the unification of the world under a single system can only suscitate violent reactions. Here again, the lack of agonistic channels for the expression of grievances tends to create the conditions for the emergence of antagonisms which, as recent events indicate, can take extreme forms and have disastrous consequences. The situation at the international level is, today, in many respects similar to the one I pointed out earlier in domestic politics: the absence of an agonistic debate does not permit legitimate forms of expression of conflicts. It is no wonder that antagonisms therefore emerge, taking extreme forms which call into question the very basis of the existing order. Even liberal cosmopolitans such as Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss recognize this when they say:
With the possibility of direct and formalized participation in the international system foreclosed, frustrated individuals and groups . . . have been turning to various modes of civic resistance, both peaceful and violent. Global terrorism is at the violent end of this spectrum of transnational protest, and its apparent agenda may be mainly driven by religious, ideological and regional goals rather than by resistance directly linked to globalization. But its extremist alienation is partly at the very least, an indirect result of [the] globalizing impact that may be transmuted in the political unconscious of those so afflicted into grievances associated with cultural injustices.16

What is really at stake is the negation of the dimension of the political and the belief that the aim of politics, be it at the national or international level, is to establish consensus on a single model, thereby foreclosing the possibility of legitimate dissent. Terrorism should warn against the dangers implied in the delusions of the universalist, globalist liberal discourse which postulates that human progress requires the establishment of world unity based on the implementation

Mouffe: The limits of John Rawlss pluralism

of western values, even if one accepts, as does Rawls, that communitarian forms of liberalism are to be tolerated. The thought that I want to share with you is that, if we want to establish a more peaceful world, it is not along cosmopolitan lines that we should be envisaging it because, whatever its form (and in my view, Rawls can be seen as advocating a weak version of cosmopolitanism), such a perspective is unable to make room for a real pluralism. I believe that what we need is to work towards the creation of a multi-polar world order where a sort of equilibrium could be created among a multiplicity of regional hegemonic poles. We hear a lot today about the need to restore an effective multilateralism. But a real multilateralism requires the existence of a plurality of centres of decisions, constituted by a certain number of great regional spaces and genuine cultural poles. It is a mistake to believe, for instance, that the modernization of Islam should take place through westernization. Trying to impose our model on the whole planet can only multiply local conflicts of resistance which foment terrorism. We have to acknowledge the pluralist character of the world the fact that, contrary to what many liberals postulate, the world is a pluriverse, not a universe.

1. Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (Phronesis) (London: Verso, 1993). 2. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000). 3. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. xviii. 4. Ibid., p. 55. 5. Ibid., p. 141. 6. Ibid., p. 159. 7. Ibid., p. 227. 8. John Rawls, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, in The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 1401. 9. Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 253. 10. Ibid., p. 164. 11. Ibid., p. 180. 12. See, for example, the analysis presented in Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Le sacrifice et lenvie (Paris: Calmann-Lvy, 1992), Ch. 5. 13. Rawls, The Law of Peoples, p. 88. 14. Ibid., p. 66. 15. Ibid., p. 38. 16. Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss, The Deeper Challenges of Global Terrorism: A Democratizing Response, in Debating Cosmopolitics, edited by Daniele Archibugi (London: Verso, 2003), p. 206.