chapter  4
17 Pages

The politics of consent, friendship and sovereignty


Against the humility of friendship stands the logic of sovereignty. (Bergowitz and Cornell, 2005: 331)


I want to address the theme of consent by looking at its relation with politics. The broad contention is that the prevalent understanding of politics influences approaches to and ultimately the working of consent and of course also dissent and refusal. Central to my reflection is the distinction between politics and the political as drawn by Claude Lefort (Lefort, 1988: 9-20), Philippe LacoueLabarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, 1997: 107-21; see also Van der Walt, 2005: 6-7). For these thinkers ‘politics’ refers to the actual exercise of power within a society, whereas ‘the political’ is the fundamental form and constitutive principles of a society. The relationship between politics and the political is paradoxical – politics aims to simultaneously open and close a space for the political (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, 1997: 110). Chantal Mouffe, in reaction to a rationalist, universalist and individualist understanding of politics, insists on an understanding of the political that ‘cannot be restricted to a certain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific sphere or level of society’ (Mouffe, 1993: 3). She conceives of the political as ‘a dimension that is inherent to every human society and that determines our ontological condition’ (1993: 3). Mouffe calls for the return of the political in the face of liberalism’s incapacity to appreciate and understand the political (1993: 4). I elaborate on Mouffe’s notion of radical democracy, which allows antagonisms, below.