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A Book Review of Ed Wigenbach's 'Institutionalizing Agonistic Democracy: Post Foundationalism and Political Liberalism'
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Review, Democracy, Democratic, Democratization on October 13, 2020 0 Comments 6 min read
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A Book Review of Ed Wigenbach’s ‘Institutionalizing Agonistic Democracy: Post Foundationalism and Political Liberalism’

(Originally published by the Melbourne Journal of Politics, 36, 2013, Pp. 74-75).

[One of the main critiques made against agonistic democracy, and it’s so old now as to really probably be annoying to the followers of that model of democracy, is that it is impractical: all protest and no way forward. I was so impressed by Ed Wingenbach‘s book on Institutionalizing Agonistic Democracy, which, if I recall from the front matter, he ended up finishing in some desert in the United States, that I couldn’t contain my desire to write a review of it. Ed, if ever you read this, I hope you find it a fair review.]

In Institutionalizing Agonistic Democracy, Ed Wingenbach engages with competing political theories to develop his argument regarding institutions being rendered into the service of agonistic democracy. He argues that institutions do not need to be essentially liberal (mainly in the Rawlsian sense) nor entirely rejected as exclusionary hegemony enforcers (as objected by radical or resistance theorists). Institutions also do not need to be made participatory at the expense of representation. In contradiction to certain liberal and deliberative theories, Wingenbach argues that institutions do not need to reify a singular consensus. Individuals, he argues, should come to understand that ‘just outcomes’ are subject to change over time and should be approached continuously. It is a mistake for institutions to make static outcomes. Viewing outcomes as plastic keeps any individuals excluded by ‘just outcomes’ to a minimum. This is because any individuals feeling excluded will be welcomed to challenge the outcome in an agonistic model. For institutions to reinforce agonistic democracy its agents must both recognize and action the contingency of the institution. Agents within and outside the institution must also recognize the contingency of their own positions.

The argument opens institutions by welcoming in the multifarious ways that publics engage matters politically. A key to understanding this point is its post-foundational ontology. Any decision will create exclusions, and decisions that are maintained exacerbate the nature of those exclusions. Rather than shy away from any decisionmaking, the key is to change the perspective of the way that decisions are made. Wingenbach argues that agents must understand where decisions come from, whether there can be more than one decision operating simultaneously, and that agents should
be open to the way that decisions can be contested. This delimits to some extent when, where, why and which agents contest a decision or institution. In short, it is the creation of tenuous, contingent foundations, reached through complex political engagements by multifarious interested agents. Wingenbach argues this to be a better political ethic and one that can produce more equitable outcomes and more impressive political decisions in any territory adhering, by his assumption, to ‘Western liberal’ values.

There are, for this reader, two distinct achievements for which Wingenbach should be praised. The first is his description of post-foundational political theory to which Chapter 1 is centrally devoted. This should be standard reading for all students of politics given its philosophical importance for that particular field of study. Postfoundationalism has disdain for parochialisms and their oversimplified practices. In relation to democratic theory this is especially noticeable. Given that the dominant narrative of democracy as the sole product of the ‘West’ is rightly resisted in the literature today post-foundationalism has recently been taken up by many democratic theorists. These post-foundational democratic theorists look to numerous instances of place, time, and language in order to make tenuous assertions that are happily open to academically- or morally-impressive contestation.

The second achievement is the way Wingenbach separates and contrasts theoretical nuances within agonistic democratic theory. This descriptive account aids the reader in understanding the complexity inherent in this one theory of democracy. It helps us understand that similar complexities exist in other democratic theories. Chapter 3 is centrally devoted to this endeavour. Oppositional, expressive, constitutional, adversarial, responsive, and, of course, liberal agonism (Wingenbach’s position which is
built as the book develops) are described and judged in relation to which would be most fitting for institutional adoption within existing frameworks.

Nevertheless, there were certain difficulties in this book. First, it would have been illuminating to have had at least one case study wherein an existing institution was rendered into an agonistic one. The practical application of Wingenbach’s argument would have been favourable as it would have demonstrated liberal agonism to the reader. Second, there were some notables missing from this engagement. Robyn Eckersley, John Keane, and Albert Weale were not included in the discussion of agonistic democracy despite their important contributions to post-foundational democratic theory. Weale (2011) had in an interview, for example, exclaimed that he was an agonistic democrat. One would think that his 2nd edition of Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007) would have had some consideration in Institutionalizing Agonistic Democracy.

Third, and close in criticism to the former point, it felt at times that certain thinkers were disproportionately weighted in relation to others. W. E. Connolly, C. Mouffe, E. Laclau, J. Rancière, and J. Rawls appeared frequently and seemed to dominate the field of evidence. This is not problematic if the author can distinctively show through his or her command of the literature that no other voices need to be included: we were, however, not given this total command since Keane, Weale and Eckersley were not included. Fourth, although the goal of this book is thought to have been achieved, its
brevity left one wanting. That, of course, may not be a bad thing as what is left out in this version may be addressed in a second edition or even follow-up book. Nevertheless, a deeper engagement with the challenges presented to deliberative democracy, arguably the most dominant theory today in democracy studies, would have strengthened the argument.

In sum, this is strong work that contributes substantively to democratic theory and political philosophy. Its command and control of numerous political theories is impressive. Despite its sometimes seemingly repetitive narrative, it deserves wide reading and engagement.

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