Beyond Free and Equal (Jakeet Singh)


Beyond Free and Equal: Subalternity and the Limits of Liberal-Democracy
Jakeet Singh
Doctor of Philosophy
Department of Political Science University of Toronto



This project seeks to critically examine the hegemony and imperialism of liberal-democratic modernity, and the possibilities for forms of politics that are rooted in subaltern difference. I argue that one of the great challenges in resisting the hegemony of liberal-democracy is that it offers a broad family of both conservative and progressive/critical languages that can be adopted and used by elite and subordinate groups alike. The availability of critical or dissenting languages that are internal to liberal-democracy often entices subordinate groups to make use of them, but this only furthers the subalternization of other distinct normative or practical traditions. I aim to articulate an alternative form of politics that remains rooted in subaltern difference, and is not simply based on an internal or immanent critique of liberal-democracy. This is a type of ethico-politics that seeks to actualize subaltern goods and traditions in its very practice or way of life, and to build its forms of resistance and transformation upon this practice. This dissertation (a) explores some of the key features of this kind of subaltern ethico-politics; (b) examines the ways in which contemporary modes of postcolonial and political thought, especially those with critical or emancipatory intent, often serve to contain and/or efface this form of subaltern praxis; and (c) addresses some of the broader questions and challenges this praxis poses for resistance to imperialism and coalition-building among diverse social movements today.


Excerpts from:

Chapter 1: The Imperial Frontiers of Liberal-Democracy: Subalternity, Social Movements, and the Ethico-Political
1.1 Introduction
1.6 An Alternative Trajectory for Postcolonial Politics
1.7 Chapter Outlines

Chapter 5: Agency beyond Autonomy: Social Movements, Deep Diversity, and the Relationship between Ethics and Politics
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Nancy Fraser and the Critical Theory Tradition
5.3 Chantal Mouffe and the Radical Democracy Tradition
5.4 Richard Day and the Post-Anarchist Tradition
5.5 Saba Mahmood and the Politics of Piety
5.6 Conclusion

Chapter 6: Conclusion: Sikhi as Ethico-Political Practice

In full:


Chapter 1
The Imperial Frontiers of Liberal-Democracy: Subalternity, Social Movements, and the Ethico-Political

1.1 Introduction

…liberal democracy is not the enemy to be destroyed. If we take ‘liberty and equality for all’ as the ‘ethico-political’ principles of liberal democracy…it is clear that the problem with our societies is not their proclaimed ideals but the fact that those ideals are not put into practice.

So the task for the left is not to reject them, with the argument that they are a sham, a cover for capitalist domination, but to fight for their effective implementation.
— Chantal Mouffe (2005:32)

To confront the hegemonic structure by denouncing the gap or contradiction between its official values and its actual practice — with greater or lesser success — is the most effective way of enforcing its universality.
— Etienne Balibar (1995: 62)

Liberal-democracy functions today as both an imperial and an emancipatory script. While the theory and practice of liberal-democracy historically arose with, was disseminated globally by, and provided crucial justifications for modern imperialisms, it has also provided the basis for many forms of critique of and resistance to imperialism. Indeed liberal-democratic languages have generated moral, humanitarian, economic, cultural, and political arguments on both sides of imperialism (Young 2001). This continues in the present, in a global order constituted by a more informal, US-led imperial system in which both its forms of governmental power, as well as the most recognizable forms of resistance to it, operate primarily through the languages of liberal-democracy (Kiely 2010; Ayers 2009; Vázquez-2 Arroyo 2008; Brown 2006; Amin 2004; Rose 1999; Dean 1999; Hindess 2004, 2001; Helliwell & Hindess 2002; Scott 1999; Venn 2006). It is this dual functionality of liberal-democratic norms, values, and institutions today that gives it its hegemonic character; liberal-democracy is hegemonic, in other words, precisely because it often sets the terms fought over and mobilized by both elite and subordinate groups within the hegemonic relation.

But liberal-democracy does not itself set the parameters for all possible forms of critique, resistance, and politics in response to its progressive march. Rather, critique and resistance to liberal-democratization have always also arisen from within the various ethical-political traditions that liberal-democratization has sought to subalternize, in ways that neither simply subversively mimic or re-deploy liberal-democratic languages against themselves, nor primarily seek to gain control of liberal-democratic institutions. These forms of politics cannot be understood, then, as based on internal or immanent critiques of liberal-democracy, nor as performative contradictions. This dissertation seeks to bring to light this broad and amorphous category of subaltern politics (or at least one particular form of it), to argue that it has been largely ignored or misunderstood by prominent strands of political theory, and to show how it stretches the limits of many forms of political thought and practice.


1.2 Liberal-Democracy

1.3 Hegemony and Subalternity

1.4 Postcolonialism and the Challenge of Politics

1.5 Political Theory and the Postcolonial Challenge

1.5.1 Postcolonial Liberalism?

1.5.2 Postcolonial Development?


1.6 An Alternative Trajectory for Postcolonial Politics

To this point, I have traced how strands of both postcolonial and political theory that take up questions about the politics of imperialized groups have contained these politics within a subinternal mode. Significant strands of postcolonial theory have focussed on the subversion of imperial discourse, or the incorporation of subalterns into conceptions of modernity, while work within political theory has contended that postcolonial or anti-imperial politics must/should remain within the basic parameters of modernization, development, and liberal-democracy. But is it true, as McCarthy argues, that a more itively-oriented, (re)constructive postcolonial politics will necessarily fall back upon modernization and development thinking? Is it the case, as Ivison suggests, that the fulfillment of liberal-democracy remains at the heart of the postcolonial project? Is the only form of agency or politics available to imperial subjects to conduct an immanent critique of modernity, development, the Enlightenment, and/or liberal-democracy? My aim in this final section is to suggest that certain, more politically-engaged, strands of postcolonial thought are charting another possible path, one that does not remain confined to subinternal resistance. Building upon the political trajectory being developed by Arturo Escobar and the modernity/coloniality research program, among others, I trace a postcolonial politics that privileges (1) subaltern difference, (2) social movements, and (3) a mode of political action that I call the ‘ethico-political’.


1.6.1 Privileging the subaltern

1.6.2 Privileging social movements

1.6.3 Privileging the ‘ethico-political’


Chapter Outlines

To this point, I have traced how strands of both postcolonial and political theory that take up questions about the politics of imperialized groups have contained these politics within a subinternal mode. Significant strands of postcolonial theory have focussed on the subversion of imperial discourse, or the incorporation of subalterns into conceptions of modernity, while work within political theory has contended that postcolonial or anti-imperial politics must/should remain within the basic parameters of modernization, development, and liberal-democracy. But is it true, as McCarthy argues, that a more itively-oriented, (re)constructive postcolonial politics will necessarily fall back upon modernization and development thinking? Is it the case, as Ivison suggests, that the fulfillment of liberal-democracy remains at the heart of the postcolonial project? Is the only form of agency or politics available to imperial subjects to conduct an immanent critique of modernity, development, the Enlightenment, and/or liberal-democracy? My aim in this final section is to suggest that certain, more politically-engaged, strands of postcolonial thought are charting another possible path, one that does not remain confined to subinternal resistance. Building upon the political trajectory being developed by Arturo Escobar and the modernity/coloniality research program, among others, I trace a postcolonial politics that privileges (1) subaltern difference, (2) social movements, and (3) a mode of political action that I call the ‘ethico-political’.

The remaining chapters of this dissertation explore in greater detail the key features of the kind of subaltern ethico-politics described above; the ways in which contemporary modes of political thought serve to contain and/or efface this form of praxis; and some of the broader questions and challenges it poses for resistance to imperialism and coalition-building among diverse social movements today. In the following two chapters, I focus on two of the dominant approaches within political theory for understanding and taking up a politics of religious and cultural difference. In both cases, my aim is to show how these approaches are premised upon the subinternization of cultural and religious difference, and serve to foreclose the possibility of a subaltern ethico-politics.

The first of these dominant approaches, which attempts to take up the challenge of religious and cultural difference by re-shaping the norms of public reason, is the focus of Chapter 2. Here I engage with the recent ‘postsecular’ turn in the thought of Jürgen Habermas, which explicitly aims to take seriously the enduring presence of religion in public life, and to move beyond older theories of modernization and secularization which assumed either the complete privatization of religion or the eventual demise and disappearance of religious ways of life altogether. In response to these discredited theories, Habermas proposes a new relationship between religious citizens, secular citizens, and the state that is largely based on a form of public reason that is more responsive and inclusive of religious contributions. Starting from within the terms of Habermas’s theory of postsecularism, I attempt to work my way out, revealing how religious difference is subordinated to the imperatives of legitimation and modernization in this framework, in ways that both position religious difference as a threat to be contained and re-structured, and obscure the forms of power and violence implicated in these liberal-democratic imperatives. I conclude this chapter by arguing that a more genuinely postsecular approach to public reason would have to be more critical, comparative, and ethical than Habermas’s approach in order to take seriously both religious difference and contemporary forms of liberal-democratic power.

Chapter 3 engages with the other dominant theoretical approach to cultural and religious difference, which is a cultural rights-based approach that seeks to accommodate cultural difference through institutionalized forms of recognition and self-determination. This chapter aims to expose the conceptual, normative, and practical limits of this dominant approach to (multi)cultural politics, which I call the top-down approach, by contrasting it with an alternative, bottom-up approach to the politics of recognition and self-determination. My account of the latter continues to fill out the picture of a subaltern ethico-politics begun here, and draws heavily upon the work of Gandhi to do so. By directly juxtaposing these dominant and subordinate approaches to cultural politics, I aim to highlight both the constraining and subinternizing effects of the dominant approach, and the possibilities of a significantly re-oriented and expanded field of cultural politics.

Chapter 4 picks up on a discussion begun in Chapter 3 on the work of Michel Foucault, and his central role in the bottom-up tradition. While Foucault’s work has been pivotal in influencing and shaping the theoretical apparatus used by approaches from below, especially in postcolonial thought, many of these latter thinkers have not directly engaged with the normative commitments that Foucault affirmed in his later work, and the implications of these for postcolonialism’s own commitments. Indeed, in his later work, Foucault affirms a number of commitments, including a commitment to an autonomous subject, that converge with liberal-democratic forms of thought, either because they already occupied a place within the latter tradition, or because they have since been incorporated into that tradition. This convergence, I suggest, poses a yet unresolved tension within those strands of postcolonial thought that are committed to the affirmation of forms of subaltern difference, often over and against the hegemony of liberal-democratic forms of thought. This tension is especially acute with respect to the question of whether postcolonialism’s own turn to ethics is or ought to be premised on the kind of ethics of autonomy emphasized by Foucault.

Chapter 5 reveals how the tension over an ethics of autonomy described in Chapter 4 plays out in the context of the deep diversity of social movements contesting forms of globalization and imperialism today. Here I analyze several theoretical approaches that attempt to conceptualize, frame and orient this deep diversity of struggles using different understandings of the relationship between ethics and politics. Nancy Fraser’s approach, rooted in a neo-Kantian Critical Theory tradition, argues that social movements must converge on a politics that transcends their deep ethical diversity. Chantal Mouffe and Richard Day, on the other hand, rooted in a radical democratic and post-anarchist tradition respectively, argue for the inseparability of ethics and politics—that all forms of politics are intertwined with a form of ethics, and are therefore properly understood as ethico-political—and the corresponding irreducibility of ethico-political difference. Nonetheless, I suggest that an ethico-political meta-norm of autonomy remains operative in the work of both authors, mainly because each conceptualizes difference through the lens of an oppression/autonomy binary. In the end, I turn to Saba Mahmood’s work on Islamic women’s piety movements to illustrate the kinds of challenges that subaltern, ethico-political social movements might pose to the limits of both dominant and subintern forms of ‘progressive’ politics.

Finally, I conclude the dissertation by utilizing the framework developed in the preceding chapters to reflect on two distinctive forms of politics rooted in my own Sikh community and tradition. The first is a modern, subintern politics that largely abstracts away from the content of Sikhi in the course of struggling for inclusion or accommodation into liberal-democratic norms and institutions. The second is a subaltern ethico-politics that struggles to live a Sikh way of life in the face of the broad array of assimilative forces of modernity. I argue that the latter is emerging in the cracks and interstices of the modern project, indeed transgressing the boundaries which that project seeks to impose. In doing so, it points beyond itself, toward the possibility and actuality of diverse modes of praxis, grounded in subaltern traditions, that only taken together in their irreducible diversity can begin to constitute a post-imperial pluriverse.


Chapter 2: Pluralism beyond Postsecularism: Imperialism, Liberal-Democracy and
the Politics of Religious/Secular Diversity

2.1 Introduction

2.2 The Postsecular Turn

2.3 Two Limits on Postsecular Pluralism

2.3.1 Legitimating the Liberal-Democratic State

2.3.2 Imperial Modernization

2.4 Beyond Habermasian Postsecularism: Public Reason in an Imperial Context

2.5 Conclusion

Chapter 3: Recognition and Self-Determination: Approaches from Above and Below

3.1 Introduction

3.2 Two Understandings of Recognition

3.3 Two Understandings of Freedom & Power

3.4 Two Understandings of Cultural Claims & Cultural Diversity

3.5 Two Understandings of Self-Determination

3.6 Conclusion

Chapter 4: Foucault, Freedom and the Ethics of Autonomy

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Foucault’s Three Freedoms

4.2.1 The First Freedom

4.2.2 The Second Freedom

4.2.3 The Third Freedom

4.3 Foucault and the Politics of Autonomy

4.4 Foucault and Liberal-Democracy

4.5 Beyond Liberal-Democracy and the Autonomous Subject

4.6 Conclusion


Chapter 5
Agency beyond Autonomy: Social Movements, Deep Diversity, and the Relationship between Ethics and Politics

5.1 Introduction

The resistance to modern oppression has to involve, in our part of the world, some resistance to modernity and to important aspects of modern theories of oppression.

–Ashis Nandy (1987: 117)

Contemporary reflection about global social movements from below must contend with the incredible diversity of these movements. Sites like the World Social Forum and the Occupy protests (as well as the myriad links made between the latter and the Arab Spring uprisings) make readily visible the myriad forms of difference across which many groups are attempting to build cooperation and solidarity. Increasing recognition of this deep diversity is apparent in the widespread shift from the term ‘the anti-globalization movement’ to ‘the movement of movements’, and from the slogan ‘another world is possible’ to ‘other worlds are possible and actual’. This shift in emphasis toward greater diversity appears in many ways to be a response to contemporary sites like the WSF in which the modern, secular left comes into contact with religious, indigenous, feminist, ecological, queer, dalit and many other subaltern peoples and groups (Sen et al. 2004; Santos 2005b, 2006, Conway 2012).

While the dizzying character of this diversity is often acknowledged—“chaotic, dispersive, unknowable” (Mertes 2004: 237)—attempts to think through it in a sustained way have tended to focus on differences of organizational forms, structural targets, and tactics/strategy. For example, there has been a great deal of discussion about the appropriate processes, procedures and organization of these activist spaces with respect to this diversity—about ‘open space’ in the WSF, and about ‘consensus decision-making’ in the Occupy movements. Other discussions have centred around the tensions between groups that are centralized and structured hierarchically, and those that are decentralized and organized horizontally, as well as tensions between groups that are oriented toward institutional reform, and those oriented toward anti-systemic, revolutionary change. Still other conversations have focussed on how to conceptualize the common structural target of these movements—globalization? neoliberalism? empire?—and on the appropriate tactics with which, and scale(s) on which, to confront this target. Finally, a good deal of attention has been paid to the diverse and intersecting structures of oppression that operate among diverse groups, and to the question of how to confront and resist all of these structures simultaneously.

Relative to these issues of organizational-structural-tactical diversity, however, little direct attention has been paid to the issues raised by the deep ethical or normative diversity of these movements, and especially the challenges it poses for coalition- and solidarity-building. Of course, many of the former issues are closely related to questions of ethical diversity; nonetheless, it has been rare for substantive ethical differences (e.g. those between indigenous and modern ways of life) to be confronted in any concrete and sustained way. Indeed often when questions of ethical diversity arise, the response does not involve a concrete engagement with substantive differences but rather a (re)affirmation of a commitment to autonomy. For example, one of the most common ways of describing the benefits to diversity of the ‘horizontalist’ procedural and organizational innovations of the WSF and Occupy protests is to say that they allow for greater autonomy of participating individuals and groups. Similarly, one of the most common responses to the various structures of oppression that affect diverse groups has been to affirm a common commitment to ‘anti-oppression’ or to the minimization of oppression and domination, which itself is often internally related to a commitment to autonomy (as we saw to be the case with Foucault in the last chapter). The encounter with deep diversity within the global justice movements, then, has in many ways served to re-inscribe the classic, modern meta-norm of autonomy (however ascribed with a subintern meaning) as a kind of higher-order good that is to orient and coordinate the praxis of deeply diverse social movements.

Indeed because of the hegemony of modern, top-down ways of thinking about diversity that seek to transcend diversity rather than engage with it, the appeal to meta-norms of freedom, equality and autonomy continues to be quite common within both activist circles and academic theories that regard themselves as aligned with bottom-up social movements and as taking seriously their vast diversity. In this chapter I will engage with several prominent theoretical approaches to the politics of diversity among social movements. Interestingly, while each of these approaches is rooted in a different critical tradition, they each explicitly reflect on diversity through an examination of the relationship between ethics and politics, and therefore focus on the specific question of ethical diversity. Through a detailed exposition and comparison of each approach, I will argue that these theories form a kind of trajectory or learning curve with respect to the depth and complexity of diversity (especially normative diversity) that they take seriously.

First I will examine Nancy Fraser’s neo-Kantian approach, which draws a strict separation between ethics and politics, and suggests that diverse movements ought to build cooperation around a politics that remains impartial to ethical commitments. I will argue that Fraser’s approach limits diversity by (a) asserting a universal liberal-democratic principle that ostensibly transcends all cultural complexity and difference; (b) employing a meta-narrative of modernization that does much of the work to limit the scope of diversity that Fraser takes seriously; and (c) restricting what counts as ‘political’ to those claims or demands that can be placed on, and enforced by, dominant institutions.

Second, I will then turn to the post-Marxist, radical democracy tradition of Chantal Mouffe. Through an examination of both her sole-authored writings and her earlier work with Ernesto Laclau, I will argue that this approach takes the complexity of diversity more seriously than the neo-Kantian approach because it begins with the premise that no form of morality can transcend all ethical diversity, and that the field of the political is marked by undecidability and irreducible pluralism. Despite this starting point, however, this approach proceeds to argue for a contingent but nonetheless hegemonic liberal-democratic project that is both ethical and political and provides a ‘contaminated’ form of universality through which to articulate diverse movements into a chain of equivalence. The liberal-democratic limits of diversity in this approach, then, turn out to be quite similar to the neo-Kantian approach, but are simply construed as ethico-political decisions, not moral requirements. Furthermore, like the neo-Kantian approach, Mouffe deploys a modernization story that does a great deal of work in limiting the range of diversity that Mouffe has to take seriously.

Third, I will examine the work of Richard Day, who is writing in an anarchist/post-anarchist tradition. Day’s approach shares with Mouffe’s the notion that ethical difference cannot be bracketed out of politics by recourse to a deontological morality, but unlike the latter he is highly attentive to forms of ethico-politics that fall outside of hegemonic projects, especially that of liberal-democracy. Furthermore, Day is very critical of imperial meta-narratives that circumscribe diversity within the limits of modernity. I will argue, however, that because Day’s approach takes up diversity within an oppression/autonomy problematic, it ends up affirming a meta-norm of autonomy which is to reconcile and coordinate the actions of deeply diverse movements.

Lastly, I will attempt to bring into conversation with these three ‘progressive’, secular-humanist traditions the work of anthropologist Saba Mahmood. Mahmood’s work aims to show how an Islamic women’s piety movement in Egypt challenges the limits of ‘progressive’, liberal-democratic understandings of politics by illustrating that ethical movements can exercise tremendous agency and commitment to radical social change without necessarily being oriented toward the end of autonomy or liberation from oppression. I will use Mahmood’s work to argue that a post-imperial approach to diversity must learn to see the deep diversity of ethico-political movements that lie beyond the oppression/autonomy problematic. This, I suggest, will help us take another step in understanding and furthering the possibilities for coalition- and solidarity-building within the global networks of social movements from below.


5.2 Nancy Fraser and the Critical Theory Tradition

One author who has attempted to articulate a normative project to orient the praxis of diverse social movements is Nancy Fraser. Her work explicitly aims to “clarify the aspirations of those social movements that seem to me to carry our best hopes for an emancipatory future,” as well as to disclose and foster “possible links between existing social struggles” (Nash and Bell 2008: 74-5). Writing within a Habermasian Critical Theory tradition, Fraser argues for a deontological approach to social justice, in which norms of social justice are regarded as universally binding because they are derived independently of contextually-embedded evaluative horizons, and therefore remain impartial with respect to particular forms of life and “hold independently of actors’ commitments to specific values” (2000: 97). Struggles for social justice, then, should for Fraser strongly prioritize the right over the good, privilege questions of justice over questions of the good life, and remain on the ground of morality as long as possible without recourse to ethics or ethical evaluation.

Originally developed as a two-dimensional theory, Fraser’s theory of social justice now includes three goals towards which diverse social movement praxis should be oriented—redistribution, recognition, and representation—each corresponding to an analytically distinct aspect of social order, as well as to an analytically distinct form of injustice. First, redistribution seeks to address injustice in the economic structure of society, including exploitation, economic marginalization and deprivation, through the remedy of economic restructuring. Second, recognition seeks to address injustice in the cultural order of society—that is, in the social patterns of interpretation, evaluation and communication—including cultural domination, nonrecognition and disrespect, by pursuing cultural or symbolic change (2003: 13). Finally, Fraser has recently expanded her theory to include representation, which seeks to address injustice in the political dimension of society. This dimension involves the boundaries of the political community, and the question of who is able to make justice claims on one another, as well as the procedures of public contestation and decision-making. This political dimension of justice, which is increasingly crucial and complicated in a globalizing world in which the Keynesian-Westphalian frame of politics can no longer always be assumed to be the appropriate frame of social justice, “furnishes the stage on which struggles over distribution and recognition are played out. …it tells us not only who can make claims for redistribution and recognition, but also how such claims are to be mooted and adjudicated” (2005a: 75)

For Fraser, while there are three social spheres or dimensions to which social justice concerns apply, there is only one normative standard of justice that transcends and applies to all three, namely the principle of ‘participatory parity’. This principle, then, is not itself cultural, economic, or political, but transcends each and is rooted in a universal morality. Her theory of social justice is, then, “social-theoretically multidimensional and normatively monist” (2007a: 328). She writes:

In my view, the most general meaning of justice is parity of participation. According to this radical-democratic interpretation of the principle of equal moral worth, justice requires social arrangements that permit all to participate as peers in social life. Overcoming injustice means dismantling institutionalized obstacles that prevent some people from participating on a par with others, as full partners in social interaction. (2005a: 73)

What is important to recognize about Fraser’s principle of participatory parity is that in her view it takes seriously and begins from a foundational recognition of deep ethical pluralism. She argues that:

Under [modern conditions of value pluralism], there is no single conception of self-realization or the good life that is universally shared, nor any that can be established as authoritative. Thus, any attempt to justify claims for recognition that appeals to an account of self-realization or the good life must necessarily be sectarian. No approach of this sort can establish such claims as normatively binding on those who do not share the theorist’s conception of ethical value. (2003: 30)

As such, for Fraser, today “we must evaluate claims across divergent value horizons, no single one of which can reasonably claim to trump all the others. The result is that Critical Theory needs a nonsectarian theory of justice” (2003: 223; her emphasis).

While recognizing, then, that the challenge of deep diversity is that no single ethical conception can be deemed universally authoritative, Fraser nonetheless proceeds to argue that her principle of social justice—namely, the principle of participatory parity—actually transcends this predicament, and can in fact be established as universally authoritative. Because her theory is based upon a commitment to the equal autonomy of individuals, which depends on their ability “to exercise their free and equal personhood by participating with one another as peers,” (2007a: 334) it therefore “does not appeal to a conception of self-realization or the good”; rather, it appeals “to a conception of justice that can—and should—be accepted by those with divergent conceptions of the good,” and can therefore be established as “normatively binding on all who agree to abide by fair terms of interaction under conditions of value pluralism” (2003: 31). This theory, in her view, is based only on a “limited, ‘political’ conception of the person, which picks out only those features of personhood that a non-sectarian theory of justice must presuppose” (2007a: 334, my italics). In short, she regards the norm of participatory parity as wholly “deontological and nonsectarian” (2003: 30-1); as such, it is not simply one value horizon among others, but is a meta-norm, rooted in the practice of discourse itself, that is able to fairly mediate conflicts across different value horizons (2003: 225). As she herself puts it: “I also contend that beneath all the cultural complexity lies a single moral imperative: the principle of participatory parity” (2003: 219, my emphasis).

Despite refusing to situate participatory parity as simply one value horizon among others, however, Fraser does not hesitate to situate this principle within the historical tradition of liberalism. She fully admits to having “returned to the core concepts of the liberal tradition, namely, the equal autonomy and moral worth of human beings” (2003: 224). Participatory parity, which Fraser claims “simply is the meaning of equal respect for the equal autonomy of human beings qua social actors” (2003: 231, her emphasis), and is a species of “thick deontological liberalism” (2003: 230), is further described as

…the outcome of a broad, multifaceted historical process that has enriched the meaning of liberal equality over time. In this process, which is by no means confined to the West, the concept of equal moral worth has expanded in both scope and substance. …Participatory parity, then, is the emergent historical “truth” of the liberal norm of the equal autonomy and moral worth of human beings. (2003: 231-2)

So despite clearly locating her principle of justice within the historical unfolding of the liberal tradition, her theory of social justice nonetheless remains “nonsectarian,” and avoids becoming simply “one concrete ethical ideal among others,” for in that case it would be “fatally compromised” (2003: 225).

It is important to recognize here that Fraser is able to claim that her theory of social justice is universal and impartial, while simultaneously being historically situated, by recourse to a global meta-narrative of modernization. Indeed, in Fraser’s framework, the transition to modernity does the work to create the historical conditions in which her principle of participatory parity can function as an impartial norm. For Fraser, recognition of value pluralism is a distinctively modern development, and participatory parity is able to remain neutral among conceptions of the good precisely because of the epistemic adjustments brought about by modernization. In other words, participatory parity is neutral not among all evaluative horizons, but among those who have been suitably adjusted by processes of modernization. She writes:

Embracing the modern view that it is up to individuals and groups to define for themselves what counts as a good life and to devise for themselves an approach to pursuing it, within limits that ensure a like liberty for others, [participatory parity] appeals to a conception of justice that can be accepted by people with divergent conceptions of the good. (2000: 104)

Fraser fleshes out her conception of modernity by contrasting it, rather conventionally, with “traditional” societies, which are understood as “fully kin-governed” (2003: 54). [35] While traditional societies are “sharply bounded, institutionally undifferentiated, ethically monistic, uncontested, and socially legitimate” (2003: 55), cultural modernity—which she refers to interchangeably as “contemporary society”, thereby identifying the present homogeneously with modernity—has, on the other hand, been transformed through historical processes of marketization and the rise of a complex civil society into a society that is “hybridized, differentiated, pluralistic, and contested, …[and] suffused with anti-hierarchical norms” (2003: 56). Modernization, then, for Fraser not only gives rise to the values upon which participatory parity is based, but also does the historical work needed to allow for it to function as an impartial norm.

Ultimately, then, Fraser’s approach to deep diversity is simply to transcend it by recourse to an ostensibly impartial standard of justice. It is this standard that, in Fraser’s framework, allows for the articulation of diverse social movements. Rather than facing deep diversity, however, this approach simply wishes it away, declaring participatory parity to be a meta-norm that stands above all particular value horizons, and ignoring the work of feminists, communitarians, value and legal pluralists, and postcolonial critics of liberalism who have for decades been critiquing liberal pretensions to impartiality. These critics have carefully traced how all political principles and procedures are underpinned by substantive (and controversial) ethical and cultural commitments, and how these principles and procedures are always historically and culturally situated and are intertwined with particular forms of life. In doing so, they have exposed the particular, substantive, non-neutral character of liberalism’s autonomous individual subject. Indeed, Nikolas Kompridis is correct to remind us that “compelling arguments have been circulating for some time as to why such strong notions of impartiality may be part of the problem, not part of the solution to the challenges of value pluralism and deep diversity” (2007: 279). Dismissing these critiques, Fraser paradoxically identifies her approach “with the central moral ideal of modern liberalism” (2003: 228) while at the very same time explicitly denying that it is “one concrete ethical ideal among others”. She accomplishes this, furthermore, by deploying a modernization story that confers all non-liberal forms of life to the dustbin of history and renders them unnecessary to confront or even acknowledge in contemporary reflections on social justice. Clearly, then, Fraser’s framework does not take seriously the deep diversity of a contemporary ‘movement of movements’ that includes many indigenous and other subaltern movements who not only provincialize liberalism as one ethico-political tradition among many others, but also continue to resist the modernization project that Fraser treats as a fait accompli.

Another aspect of Fraser’s framework that relates to the praxis of contemporary social movements is that this praxis is, in her view, ultimately channelled toward making demands of formal political institutions. Not only does the prefix ‘re-’ in each of her three branches of social justice point toward the presence of an ultimate agent from whom justice is demanded and by whom justice is subsequently distributed, but this is confirmed by Fraser’s claim that representation provides the very ground on which struggles for social justice take place, as well as by her argument that the key challenge of the post-Westphalian world is the “need to construct new addressees for public opinion, in the sense of new, transnational public powers that possess the administrative capacity to solve transnational problems” (2007b: 23). For Fraser, social movements must always be paired with formal state institutions because it is ultimately to these institutions and their binding decisions that social movement praxis is aimed: “the civil-society track of transnational democratic politics needs to be complemented by a formal-institutional track” such that “formal institutions…can translate transnational public opinion into binding, enforceable decisions” (2005a: 85 n.16).


5.3 Chantal Mouffe and the Radical Democracy Tradition

Another project that has sought to provide normative orientation to the praxis of diverse social movements can be found in the work of Chantal Mouffe, beginning with her early co-authored work with Ernesto Laclau, through to her most recent work in which she shifts her attention from a national to a global scale. A central goal of Mouffe and Laclau’s highly influential book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, was to take seriously the rise of the ‘new social movements’ and to encourage the Left to move past an orthodox economism in order to accommodate these movements. This ‘post-Marxist’ intervention sought to reformulate the socialist project in terms of “radical and plural democracy”, and to encourage the building of a ‘chain of equivalence’ among old and new democratic struggles “in order to form a ‘collective will’, a ‘we’ of the radical democratic forces” (Mouffe 2005: 53).

In many ways, the objects of Mouffe and Laclau’s critique of classical Marxisms are the same objects of Mouffe’s later critique of liberalisms. Both critiques remain largely on the terrain of epistemological debates, and consist mainly of poststructuralist critiques of foundationalism, rationalism, essentialism, universalism, a priori knowledge and unitary subjects, and teleological and monistic readings of history. Mouffe and Laclau, then, reject the kind of deontological, universalistic, and rationalistic approach to social justice offered by Fraser’s Critical Theory approach. For them there are no impartial, context-independent standards of social justice that can provide a common foundation for diverse social struggles, no principles to be found ‘beneath all the cultural complexity’. Instead, the whole realm of the political—including every social struggle and movement—must be dealt with in its undecidability, indeterminacy, contingency, and irreducible pluralism. The highly diverse ‘new social movements’ with which Mouffe and Laclau are concerned, including “urban, ecological, anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional, feminist, anti-racist, ethnic, regional or that of sexual minorities” (1985: 159), should each be understood as distinct particularities, each with their own differential specificity, arising in distinct and (at least quasi-) autonomous social spheres and with differential positions in the social, and without an ultimate reconciliation to be found among them. They write: “Pluralism is radical only to the extent that each term of this plurality of identities finds within itself the principle of its own validity, without this having to be sought in a transcendent or underlying positive ground for the hierarchy of meaning of them all and the source and guarantee of their legitimacy” (1985:167).

But while the realm of the social is characterized by undecidability, the work of the political, for Mouffe and Laclau, is to impose decisions. In this framework, ‘the political’ is understood as a moment of closure, a moment in which a ‘decision’ is made and enforced over the entire political community, and in which the margin of undecidability is therefore reduced (Mouffe 1993: 141). For Mouffe and Laclau, then, politics turns out to be essentially about hegemony-building, or the work of building a contingent and necessarily exclusive social unity, a common symbolic framework or system of meaning, and a collective identity, in a way that collectively reduces the margin of undecidability of the social. Hegemony, then, is “a theory of the decision taken in an undecidable terrain” (2001:xi). It requires “the construction of a new ‘common sense’ which changes the identity of the different groups, in such a way that the demands of each group are articulated equivalentially with those of the others.” Hegemony “does not simply establish an ‘alliance’ between given interests, but modifies the very identity of the forces engaging in that alliance” (1985: 183-4). Mouffe and Laclau are clear, however, that hegemony requires more than simply building a chain of equivalences among a set of distinct particularities, for even after such a chain has been generated, it eventually “becomes necessary…to represent the totality of the chain, beyond the mere differential particularisms of the equivalential links.” As such, a proper hegemonic relation is established only when “a certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it” (2001: xiii).

And what exactly is the specific particularity that is to assume the hegemonic position and provide the “contaminated universality” in Mouffe and Laclau’s radical democratic vision? From the start, Mouffe and Laclau have been clear that liberal-democracy itself will play this role. Radical democracy is in fact “radical liberal democracy,” and should be conceived of “as the extension of the democratic ideals of liberty and equality to more and more areas of social life” (Mouffe 1996: 20). At the heart of radical democracy is a commitment to specifically liberal form of pluralism: “Pluralism, understood as the principle that individuals should have the possibility to organize their lives as they wish, to choose their own ends, and to realize them as they think best, is the greatest contribution of liberalism to modern society” (Mouffe 1996: 20). As such, “It is not liberalism as such which should be called into question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfil his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever” (1985:184). Far from rejecting the hegemony of liberal-democratic values and norms, then, radical democracy is a project meant to further the spread and fulfillment of liberal democratic ideals:

…liberal democracy is not the enemy to be destroyed. If we take ‘liberty and equality for all’ as the ‘ethico-political’ principles of liberal democracy…it is clear that the problem with our societies is not their proclaimed ideals but the fact that those ideals are not put into practice. So the task for the left is not to reject them, with the argument that they are a sham, a cover for capitalist domination, but to fight for their effective implementation. (2005: 32)

In her sole-authored writings (1993, 2000, 2005) Mouffe has further developed the notion of radical democracy as a type of political regime in which political adversaries share an allegiance to the hegemonic principles of political legitimacy of liberal democracy—the values of freedom and equality—but struggle over competing interpretations of these values. Radical democracy is described as an unapologetically hegemonic project that should (a) utilize its power to exclude anti-liberal-democratic values, since, according to Mouffe, conflicting principles of legitimacy cannot co-exist within the same regime without jeopardizing its very existence; (b) utilize its power to establish a hegemony of liberal-democratic values among its citizens, by promoting liberal-democratic forms of subjectivity, identity, and self-understanding; and (c) allow for contestation among endlessly competing interpretations of the liberal-democratic values of freedom and equality (i.e. a ‘conflictual consensus’ on liberal-democratic values). Mouffe does not object, then, to the exclusion of all forms of non-liberality from the political—indeed she explicitly endorses such an exclusion—but only rejects any attempts to construe this “eminently political decision” as a “moral requirement” (Mouffe 2000: 25).

A couple of further points are important to note here about this attempt to give normative orientation to diverse social movements. Fraser on the importance of ethics in this project. First, Mouffe departs strongly from For Mouffe, liberal-democracy (and radical democracy more specifically) is not simply a set of institutional, procedural norms or a set of quasi-transcendental rational principles that stands above diverse forms of life, but is itself constitutive of a particular form of life. Indeed, Mouffe rejects attempts by deontological, moral-universalistic approaches to place liberal-democratic norms above contestation and pluralism by presenting them as moral or rational necessities. Instead, she situates her own view within a Wittgensteinian-inspired, practice-based account of rationality, knowledge, normativity and procedures: “Indeed, procedures only exist as a complex ensemble of practices with their ethico-political dimensions. Those practices constitute specific forms of individuality and identity that make possible the allegiance to the procedures. It is because they are inscribed in shared forms of life and agreements in judgments that procedures can be accepted and followed” (Mouffe 2000b: 90). As such, the radical democratic project cannot simply be concerned with an institutionalized form of politics and the kinds of demands that ought to be made of that politics, but must also be concerned with promoting a form of life, an ethics, that permeates all social relations. Politics, for Mouffe and Laclau, is “a practice of creation, reproduction, and transformation of social relations” (1985: 153), and therefore has a deeply ethical dimension that must be addressed. However, because Mouffe and Laclau’s notion of the political remains fixated on the form of hegemony that constitutes the entire political regime, the kinds of ethico-politics that they permit are restricted to those which remain within a “conflictual consensus” on liberal-democratic values: “To be sure, pluralist democracy demands some form of consensus, but such a consensus concerns only its ethico-political principles” (Mouffe 2000b:92). Indeed, while Mouffe aligns her approach with ‘ethical’ projects over ‘moral’ ones because the former “are more conducive to apprehending the limits of reason and to conceptualizing the plurality of values,” she nonetheless parts ways with ethical projects because “they either avoid or do not emphasize enough the need to put some limits to pluralism” (2000a: 134). In short, then, because Mouffe’s concern for ethics is limited to the question “Which ethics for democracy?” (2000b), the deep diversity of forms of ethico-politics are largely excluded from her radical democratic project, and this project is limited to those that struggle over the meaning of freedom, equality, and rights, and seek to produce new forms of individualism (1985: 184).

Second, it is important to notice that, like Fraser, a narrative of modernization operates in Mouffe’s work to support the restrictions on pluralism to which she is committed. From its earliest to its most recent articulations, Mouffe’s explication of the radical democratic project continually asserts its ‘modern’ character. Synonymously identifying radical democracy as ‘modern democracy’ and/or ‘pluralistic democracy’, Mouffe provides an historical narrative of how ‘modernity’—understood in contrast to the ‘ancient’ or ‘premodern’, all apparently internal to the West—brings about the dissolution of markers of certainty and of shared conceptions of the good, which in turn gives rise to ‘pluralism’. Modern democratic society is understood in contrast to “earlier societies, organized in accordance with a theological-political logic, [in which] power was incorporated in the person of the prince, who was the representative of God—that is to say, of sovereign justice and sovereign reason” (1985: 186; my emphasis). Mouffe and Laclau repeatedly locate their work in a history of ‘the democratic revolution’ which originated with the French Revolution and has since been unfolding and progressively spreading to ever further social spheres and locations. Indeed, Mouffe and Laclau homogeneously describe the ‘new social movements’ as a product of this ongoing revolution. This meta-narrative then provides the ground for much of Mouffe’s argument for radical democracy. Radical democracy, she contends, best appreciates and incorporates the epistemological conditions of modernity (understood apparently as an uncomplicated, monolithic condition developed over the last two hundred years within the West), and in particular the pluralism that is its key feature. And moreover, radical democracy is itself an expression of the very democratic imaginary in which the new social movements are themselves already historically situated.

Furthermore, in turning her attention to global politics in her most recent work (2005;2008), Mouffe globalizes the modern condition that she previously grounded in a particular history of the West and treated as an intra-Western phenomenon, by making it clear that the political possibilities available globally today are limited to a range of ‘alternative modernities’. To her credit, Mouffe does acknowledge that liberal democracy (including its radical version) constitutes only one form of life and one (hegemonically-constituted) type of political regime among others. Furthermore, she supports a ‘value pluralist’ orientation to diverse political regimes and argues for a multipolar world order in which hegemony is pluralized in a number of regional poles. However, Mouffe then clarifies that political regimes should only be considered good and legitimate if they remain committed to notions of human rights and democracy that serve at least the ‘functionally equivalent’ role of protecting the dignity of the person that lies at the heart of the liberal-democratic version of human rights and democracy. Given that elsewhere Mouffe claims that human rights and democracy are the two constitutive values of liberal democracy, it is far from clear to what extent Mouffe is actually provincializing liberal democracy here. In any case, it does appear that the ‘alternative modernities’ to which Mouffe is open remain versions of ‘modernity’ in the sense that they all must be part of a conflictual consensus on the unquestionable modern values of human rights and democracy. For Mouffe, then, on both the national and global scales the historical process of modernization does a great deal of the work to circumscribe the permissible range of diversity, not only of political regimes but also of ethico-political social movements, to a spectrum that is broadly internal to modern liberal democracy. Subaltern social movements and struggles rooted in conditions of, and in resistance to, coloniality, then, are not only excluded from the radical democratic project, but do not even need to be addressed by it. Mouffe and Laclau do not appear, then, to be sufficiently attuned to the imperial power of liberal-democracy, and do not offer an account of contemporary social movements that takes seriously their deep normative pluralism.


5.4 Richard Day and the Post-Anarchist Tradition

A third attempt to provide normative orientation to diverse social movements comes from the anarchist/post-anarchist tradition. In his book Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, Richard Day, one of the leading contemporary voices in this tradition, combines a broadly anarchist framework with poststructuralist critiques of rationalism and epistemology, as well as feminist, anti-racist, queer, Marxist, and anti-imperialist commitments and sensibilities. Day strongly agrees with Mouffe and Laclau on the absence of an epistemologically-privileged form of subject and politics, and on emphasizing ethics, rather than morality and deontology, in the praxis of social movements. He is highly critical, however, of the ontology of the political deployed by Mouffe and Laclau, which he regards as statist and overly preoccupied with hegemony-building. Day’s project is largely defined against what he calls “the hegemony of hegemony,” or “the assumption that effective social change can only be achieved simultaneously and en masse, across an entire national or supranational space” (2005: 8). The work of all political actors, by this framework, must be concerned with the struggle for hegemony—that is, the struggle over shared meaning, identity, and political power (Day 2005: 6)—over the entire political community. Furthermore, this ontology of the political assumes the existence of institutions of regulation and enforcement over the whole, therefore casting a state apparatus as a necessary and indispensable feature of ‘the political’. Andrew Robinson and Simon Tormey—two other post-anarchist writers working in a very similar vein to Day—argue that for Mouffe (and Laclau) “there is only one way to ‘do politics’, which is to seek to represent a multitude of floating signifiers under the umbrella of a despotic signifier; ultimately this means a statist politics, complete with exclusions, violence, alienation and the rest” (2008:133).

For these post-anarchist writers, the notion that politics must involve either a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic project over an entire political regime is itself a product of the hegemony of statism (in both its liberal and Marxist forms), and effaces the entire realm of non-hegemonic social and political action. Juxtaposing the hegemony of hegemony with “the affinity for affinity,” Day emphasizes a form of affinity-based, experimental micropolitics that is both ethical and political, non-reformist and non-revolutionary, and seeks to prefigure, actualize, and/or construct alternatives in the here-and-now. This is a “politics of the act” that collapses the means-ends distinction, rather than a “politics of demand” that remains focused on the goal of gaining representation, recognition, redistribution or integration by national or supra-national institutions or political communities. Importantly, Day shares Mouffe’s turn to ethics, grounding his work on a Foucaultian-derived distinction between ethics and morality in which the former is prioritized and associated with situated practices of self-formation, while the latter is associated with universally binding principles of conduct (2005: 90, 167). Day’s framework, however, offers many advances over Mouffe’s with respect to the deep diversity of social movements. First, Day’s emphasis on non-hegemonic forms of micro-scale politics takes seriously a much wider and more diverse range of social and political actors and activities. Because the effect of Mouffe and Laclau’s framework is to construe as non-political all forms of struggle that do not take the political regime as their object and hegemony as their goal, it is at best dismissive of, and at worst hostile to, the myriad forms of social movement politics that reject (or at least trouble) the logic of hegemony and do not take the state or the institutional regime as the primary object of struggle. Many social and political movements do not seek to construct a new hegemony, and many are either ambivalent about, or actively hostile toward, the state institutions that serve as the centres of this hegemony. Day, as well as Tormey and Robinson, are attentive to the work of many anarchist, autonomist, feminist, and indigenous writers who have emphasized that there are many forms of politics whose primary focus is not on making demands of the state in terms of recognition, rights, representation, redistribution, inclusion, or integration. Indeed many feminist, anarchist, indigenous, environmental, queer, peace, religious, and post-capitalist movements either do not concern themselves with the state at all, or actively seek to turn away from, or at least to maintain a critical distance from, the state, and instead focus on the actualization of alternatives to the state form in the here-and-now. These activist practices and micro-political projects focus on ethical/cultural resistance and transformation, alternative-building practices, structural renewal, and/or social (not political) revolution. As Day writes, “they are not oriented to allowing a particular group or movement to remake a nation-state or a world on its own image, and are therefore of little use to those who seek power over others, or those who would ask others for gifts, thereby enslaving themselves” (2005: 13). These affinity-based, horizontal movements “avoid ‘the political’ in the Mouffean sense… But they are not ‘apolitical’ in the sense of being without contestation, deliberation, and power. They tend, however, to reject the negative, dominatory power of statist and hierarchical relations in favour of a type of power which is constructed contingently and horizontally, and which attempts to avoid rigid arrangements and constitutive exclusions” (Robinson and Tormey 2008: 154).

What is foregrounded by the analyses offered by Day, as well as Robinson and Tormey, is the entire realm of non-hegemonic, non-state-centred politics. While they agree with Mouffe and Laclau regarding the specificity of various struggles, they do not require a moment of hegemonization. Because post-anarchists move beyond an exclusive focus on those who are making demands of hegemonic institutions or trying to build hegemonies of their own, their framework brings into view an incredibly diverse range of actors and practices that are oriented by and toward any number of normative commitments and aspirations. They argue for an expansion of the analytical field of the political such that the political field “is no longer reduced to one game” but instead “includes everything from hidden transcripts and shadow states to stateless societies and networked swarms” (Robinson and Tormey 2008: 153-4). Furthermore, they highlight the field of “everyday life” as a source of infinitely diverse forms of politics by emphasizing “the ‘density’ of everyday life as a field of meanings and immanent activities rather than as a set of floating elements just waiting to be articulated by a despotic signifier” (Robinson and Tormey 2008: 152).

Another important aspect of post-anarchism in relation to Fraser’s Critical Theory and Mouffe & Laclau’s post-Marxism is that, unlike the latter two, the former is highly attentive to both imperial and liberal forms of power (including, of course, liberal-imperial forms of power). First, because of his attentiveness to indigenous peoples’ struggles against colonialism, postcolonial critiques of Eurocentrism, and contemporary imperial power relations between the global North and South, Day is a strong critic of metanarratives of modernity/modernization of the kind deployed by both Fraser and Mouffe and Laclau. Not only does Day remain aware of the exteriorities of modernity—that is, of coloniality—he also defends attempts to resist incorporation into modernity by practicing alternatives grounded in diverse, subalternized values and ways of life (2005: 87, 192). Second, unlike Fraser and Mouffe and Laclau who only pay attention to liberal-democracy’s emancipatory script but not to its operation as a form of power, Day is highly attuned to liberal-democratic forms of governmentality. Operating by integrating diverse groups into its hegemonic social order and by channelling their desires toward liberal-democratic demands, liberal-democratic governmentality is understood by Day as a mode of capture as well as a form of discipline and control that seeks to contain difference and pluralism within a highly circumscribed range. Because of his attentiveness to both imperial and liberal forms of power, then, Day’s post-anarchist framework is able to understand and appreciate a much deeper diversity of social movements, including those of indigenous and other subalternized groups, and therefore move beyond the truncated liberal-democratic pluralism of Fraser and Mouffe and Laclau, toward what we might call a postcolonial pluralism that includes non-liberal, non-modern, and other subalternized forms of difference (and their ethico-political practices and struggles).

One of the great advances of post-anarchism over Critical Theory and post-Marxism with respect to the deep diversity of global social movements, then, is that it neither seeks an ultimate rational reconciliation of diverse struggles, nor does it demand that they become articulated in a common hegemonic project. Rather, the particularity, specificity or “singularity” of each struggle is maintained and respected, for there is no single enemy against which these movements are fighting, and therefore no common, coherent project that can ultimately harmonize or unify them (2005: 5-6). Instead, the emphasis is placed on building solidarity and cooperation among irreducibly diverse individuals and groups through webs of affinity-based relationships. Solidarity is understood here in contrast with both identity and representation, since solidarity occurs across identifications, rather than within them (Day 2005: 90; Tormey 2006: 149). This affinity-based action of solidarity-building across difference is also understood as distinctly ethical, rather than moral, action, as it involves micro-level practices of self-formation that are non-universalizing or–totalizing in intent (Day 2005: 90).

However, it is crucial to recognize that there remains a kind of meta-norm at work in this literature that is meant to serve as the basis for solidarity amongst diverse individuals and groups. In keeping with the anarchist tradition in which they are working, post-anarchist like Day, Tormey and Robinson envision that diverse social movements will build relations of solidarity and cooperation around shared ethico-political commitments to maximizing the autonomy of individuals and groups and to minimizing forms of domination. While autonomy is detached here from its state-based forms, and is no longer supported with a foundational meta-narrative, it nonetheless functions in this work as a kind of second-order commitment toward which the practices of individuals, groups, movements and struggles are to be oriented. Affirming the difference of diverse ‘singularities’ is understood as the expression of a commitment to autonomy in which each singularity “speaks for itself” (Tormey 2006: 141-43). Relations of power should be evaluated, then, “according to the extent to which they encourage or discourage the maintenance, emergence and development of equitable relations between autonomous individuals and groups” (Day 2005: 134, original italics). The flip side of this commitment is the Foucaultian-derived commitment to minimizing the myriad and interlocking structural forms of domination that constrain autonomy/difference, including patriarchy, imperialism, racism, capitalism, and the state: “how can we organize ourselves so as to minimize domination and exploitation, particularly in a world increasingly colonized by neoliberal globalization and the societies of control?” (143). The basis for linking disparate individuals, groups and communities in relations of solidarity is to be built through the development of (diverse, but nonetheless) autonomous subjectivities who are actively committed to preserving their own autonomy and that of others by opposing oppressive relations along all axes of subordination (188-9).



35. Fraser is careful to place ‘traditional’ in quotation marks, and clarifies that the model of the ‘fully kin-governed society’ that she is utilizing is hypothetical, and based upon the assumptions of anthropologists. Nonetheless, she deploys this ostensibly hypothetical model precisely in order to flesh out her markedly non-hypothetical conception of cultural modernity.


5.5 Saba Mahmood and the Politics of Piety

The fourth step in the trajectory I am laying out arises from the work of Saba Mahmood, in her analysis of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Egypt. In her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Mahmood argues that the theoretical and analytical tools developed within the horizon of progressive politics are neither suited to the task of understanding non-liberal social and political movements that are not guided by the ideal of individual autonomy, nor to understanding the relationship between ethics and politics that can be enacted by these movements. The theoretical lenses associated with progressive politics often read the actions of social actors through the dichotomies of oppression/autonomy, power/resistance, and reproduction/subversion of power, such that all social and political movements come to be understood as essentially concerned (whether explicitly or implicitly, self-consciously or sub-consciously, subjectively or structurally, in intent or in effect) with one side or the other of these tropes. This theoretical imposition, Mahmood argues, “makes it hard for us to see and understand forms of being and action that are not necessarily encapsulated by the narrative of subversion and reinscription of norms” (2005: 9), and prevents the meaning of agency from being “explored within the grammar of concepts within which it resides” (34). The women’s piety movements she explores pushes us to move beyond the conventional horizons of progressive politics because of the way in which this movement “regards subordination to a transcendent will…as its coveted goal” (2-3), and therefore primarily seeks not to challenge or resist particular norms but rather to uphold and inhabit them (5, 15). The particular form of agency in this movement, then, can neither be understood through the notion of resistance, or the desire for autonomy. In fact, for Mahmood, these two concepts are inextricably tied together, since the notion of agency-as-resistance is rooted in a normative picture of the autonomous subject:

Agency, in this form of analysis, is understood as the capacity to realize one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will, or other obstacles (whether individual or collective). Thus the humanist desire for autonomy and self-expression constitutes the substrate, the slumbering ember that can spark to flame in the form of an act of resistance when conditions permit. (2005: 8)

Mahmood’s aim, in short, is to point out that agency can be exercised without an orientation to autonomy as either a political or ethical goal.

There are several interesting features of the women’s piety movement that bring Mahmood’s analysis of this movement into conversation with the three political traditions analyzed earlier. First, like Mouffe and Day, and contra Fraser, Mahmood’s theoretical framework for understanding the piety movement utilizes an Aristotelian and Foucaultian notion of ethics that is situated, practice-based, and decidedly non-universal instead of a universalistic Kantian morality that is to transcend difference through the derivation of rational norms. She writes:

Foucault’s conception of positive ethics is Aristotelian in that it conceives of ethics not as an Idea, or as a set of regulatory norms, but as a set of practical activities that are germaine to a certain way of life. Ethics in this conception is embedded in a set of specific practices (what Aristotle called “practices of virtue”). It is only from the standpoint of the dispositions formed through these practices that the Kantian question of moral deliberation can be posed. …Foucault’s use of Aristotelian ethics is not geared toward asserting its universal validity… Instead, for Foucault, this tradition allows us to think of ethics as always local and particular, pertaining to a specific set of procedures, techniques, and discourses through which highly specific ethical-moral subjects come to be formed. (27-8)

Second, Mahmood stresses the non-juridical, non-statist character of the piety movement. Her analysis reveals that the primary focus of social movements need not be on the state or political association at all, or on gaining hegemony over others. Like Day, and in contrast to Fraser and Mouffe, Mahmood disagrees with the widespread notion that “contemporary (or ‘new’) social movements are best analyzed in terms of a politics of identity that manifests itself in claims of rights, recognition, distributive justice, and political representation” (2005: 193). Indeed “it is not toward recognition that the activities of the mosque or the piety movement are oriented, but rather toward the retraining of ethical sensibilities so as to create a new social and moral order. In light of this, it would therefore be a mistake to assume that all contemporary social movements find their genesis in a politics of identity and should be analyzed as responses to the juridical language of rights, recognition, and distributive justice” (2005: 193). This movement does not fall into a ‘politics of demand’, to use Day’s phrase, but rather aims toward ethical self-transformation, and therefore need not be contained within, or directly oppositional to, the dominant, official languages and norms of the political association. Such ethical movements are often neither liberal nor anti-liberal, as Mouffe’s approach would frame it; rather, they travel at oblique angles to the state and its hegemonic discourses, and can be oriented toward any number of non-statist and non-hegemonic goods. Nonetheless, they are deeply political, both in the sense that they seek and often achieve significant social transformation, but also because they often upset, intentionally or incidentally, the very hegemony-building projects of the state that preoccupy Mouffe, without necessarily mobilizing an alternative hegemonic project of their own. Like Day, then, Mahmood’s work serves to undermine the statist or hegemony-building imperatives imposed by Fraser and Mouffe on diverse social movements.

Third, also like Day, and unlike Fraser and Mouffe, Mahmood is highly attentive to modern, liberal, and imperial forms of power. Not only does she situate the piety movement as at least partially a response, on the part of its participants, to perceived processes of secularization and westernization brought about by modern liberal governance (2005: 4), but she also situates her own analytical and theoretical interventions as a response to modern, liberal-secular power operating within the realm of knowledge production and intellectual labour. For Mahmood, the agency-as-resistance model that she critiques is itself a manifestation of liberal-secular power that insinuates itself—in terms of its goals, normativities, and teleologies—into our lenses and languages of understanding and evaluation of social phenomena like the piety movement. Hers is an intervention not only
into the colonialist assumptions and ideals underpinning many forms of feminist and ‘progressive’ scholarship, but also into how this work ‘functions’ in an imperial context. She writes:

…North Atlantic geopolitical interests in the Middle East have long made it a primary site for the exercise of Western power, and thus for the deployment of the secular-liberal discourses through which that power often operates. What is at stake in Western critiques of Islam, in other words, is not simply a question of ideological bias, but rather the way these critiques function within a vast number of institutional sites and practices aimed at transforming economic, political, and moral life in the Middle East… (191)

Where Mahmood goes further than Day in her critique of the imperial power of modern secular liberalism, however, is to extend this critique to the very picture of the autonomous subject that Day’s anarchism/post-anarchism shares with liberalism. [36] Liberalism, for Mahmood, constitutes, and is constituted by, a distinct and hegemonic conception of the subject, ethics, and politics—“something like a form of life” (2007: 149)—which naturalizes and universalizes the desire for autonomy and renders hegemonic the maxim “that the good life is necessarily a freely chosen one in which a person develops his unique capacities in accord with his ‘own will and interests’” (2007: 148). What is interesting and significant about the piety movement for Mahmood is that it challenges in many ways the knowledges, self-understandings, ethics, and sensibilities of liberalism’s autonomous subject, and therefore helps to bring to light “its hegemonic qualities, its normative assumptions, and the ways in which it remains peculiarly blind to other kinds of political and social projects and moral-ethical aspirations” (2007: 149).

Because, as we have seen, the central features and commitments of the autonomous subject are shared equally by liberals and anarchists, Day’s framework maintains many of the same blind-spots and limitations as liberalism, enabling us to see and understand very little about ethical, social, and political action beyond the oppression/autonomy dyad. Mahmood’s work shows that politics is not simply about resistance to, and liberation from, forms of oppression and domination, but can be oriented toward any number of ethico-political goods. This can be true for both state-centred and non-state-centred politics. And furthermore, not only will subjects be oriented toward diverse goods, but their ethical relation to these goods may not be one of autonomous rule over oneself (“I choose to bring myself into accord with these goods”), but may rather involve establishing a relation of subordination to a duty or a will beyond oneself (“I am compelled to live in accordance with these goods”). For both Mouffe and Day, ethical practice is to remain oriented toward an ideal of autonomy; ethical practices are not just practices of freedom in relation to dominant norms, but are practices for freedom, and are part of an effort to produce autonomous subjects and communities. Mahmood, on the other hand, uses Foucaultian ethics precisely to illustrate that ethical practices are very often not practices for freedom at all, and that, as such, it would be a mistake to attribute to all social and political movements either a first- or second-order commitment to freedom and/or autonomy. Mahmood’s work helps to challenge, then, the meta-norm of autonomy that continues to operate even in many non-statist and ethico-political orientations.

It is important to notice why Mahmood is willing and able to see beyond the meta-norm of autonomy where Mouffe and Day are not, even though all of these three, in contrast to Fraser, share a turn to ethics that is premised on a rejection of foundationalist meta-norms. Of course, for Fraser’s deontological Critical Theory tradition, the abstraction away from the substantive content of ethical difference is precisely the point of appealing to a meta-norm of autonomy. But for the post-Marxist and post-anarchist traditions, this move is more surprising, especially given their common critique of Kantian moral universalism and deontology, and their shared emphasis on ethical specificity, situated practice, and irreducible difference. The reason why Mouffe and Day do not see beyond this meta-norm, I want to suggest, is that they conceptualize difference primarily within the secular-humanist binary of oppression/autonomy. Through this lens, the challenge or problem of difference and diversity is in fact reduced to the problem of oppression constraining an autonomous subject, and more specifically to the problem of the diversity of oppressions that are doing so, rather than concern for the actual substance of ethical difference, and the diversity of ethics. Through the oppression/autonomy lens, difference does not have to be dealt with in its specific, positive content, but only in the autonomy to pursue whichever content the subject chooses, and the forms of oppression that hinder this. In other words, take care of oppression/autonomy, and difference will take care of itself.

This abstraction away from the ethical content of difference plays out in a couple of different ways in the work of Mouffe and Day. First, both authors place greater attention on what we might call negative difference, or forms of difference or oppression that are to be transcended, eliminated or overcome, rather than on positive difference, or forms of difference that are to be maintained, affirmed, and practiced. Differences along axes of race, sex and class, for example, are often regarded as divisions to be overcome, and are often not regarded as forms of difference that offer their own ethical alternatives to be affirmed. As such, the critiques of these forms of oppression do not appear to have to take account of any specificities of ethical difference. And second, even when these authors do take account of positive forms of difference, such as the difference involved in religious or indigenous struggles, they appear to believe that these are simply particularistic struggles for autonomy, and therefore need only to be addressed in terms of equal autonomy, rather than in terms of the content of the ethical difference being asserted. In fact, in abstracting away from the specific ethical difference involved, difference is not treated here as a positive form of difference at all, but rather is treated as an inequality or difference with respect to autonomy, and therefore as a negative form of difference (e.g. differences of autonomy ought to be eliminated). Even struggles for difference are taken up here as struggles for a kind of sameness.

For example, when conceptualizing the relations among diverse movements and groups, Mouffe and Laclau picture various groups each utilizing the discourse of liberal-democracy and the goods of freedom and equality to challenge relations of oppression, and gradually recognizing how their shared liberal-democratic horizon and struggle against oppression allows them to build a chain of equivalence among themselves (1985: 152-8). While many of the ‘new social movements’ that they initially claim to be addressing clearly incorporate a positive ethics that goes well beyond a simple autonomy or ‘anti-oppression’ struggle—they mention ecological, feminist, and ethnic struggles, for example—Mouffe and Laclau really only end up addressing the building of equivalence among negatively-defined struggles against oppression and positively-defined projects for equality and liberty:

The strengthening of specific democratic struggles requires, therefore, the expansion of chains of equivalence which extend to other struggles. The equivalential articulation between anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-capitalism, for example, requires a hegemonic construction which, in certain circumstances, may be the condition for the consolidation of each one of these struggles. (1985: 182)

Similarly, while Day refers to many struggles that are centrally concerned with affirming a positive ethical difference or alternative way of life, such as indigenous, queer, feminist and environmental movements, his discussion of building solidarity among diverse subjects remains focussed on the problem of addressing the diverse forms of oppression that divide these struggles, rather than their diverse ethics:

If the multitudes are ever to come together in any way, this will be the result of a long process of building solidarity and dealing with differences and structured oppressions that plague movements for radical alternatives as much as they do the political mainstream. We simply cannot wish away or have done with racism, heterosexism, classism and other forms of prejudice. (2005: 155)

By his own account, what Day’s post-anarchism adds to classical anarchism is a more thorough and multidimensional analysis of diverse axes of oppression, and a politics of affinity/solidarity that is based on an integrative anti-oppression framework and a set of shared ethico-political commitments derived from that framework (178-202). Indeed, for Day, the reason why diverse struggles are ultimately irreconcilable is not because such a reconciliation would be somehow undesirable because of their diverse, positive ethical projects; rather this reconciliation is simply regarded as impossible, because power can never be eliminated, and forms of autonomy along different axes of oppression can never be fully harmonized: “total liberation does not exist, it never has existed, and it never will exist; to seek it is to give in to the Utopian urge to free the entire world once and for all, to achieve the transparent society” (154). While total liberation is utopian, the meta-norm here remains the maximization of autonomy and the minimization of oppression and domination. As such, the bedrock upon which diverse struggles and communities are to build solidarity is a shared commitment to fight against each other’s oppressions (189).

Mahmood’s work sees beyond the oppression/autonomy frame because her focus is neither on a form of difference that is defined negatively as an axis of oppression to be overcome, nor on a movement struggling for autonomy, but from the outset is on the specific ethical content that is affirmed and actualized by a nonliberal, religious movement. As such, her starting point lies outside the secular-humanist problematic of oppression/autonomy that concerns Mouffe and Day, and enables her to show that a movement can exercise a form of agency that is both ethical and political, without being oriented either toward autonomy or against oppression. In fact, as we have seen, Mahmood goes so far as to resist the very language of ‘resistance’ itself because of its ties to autonomy. For Mahmood, the common link that defines agency as a form of resistance to particular relations of power and/or oppression is itself a product of the normative picture of an autonomous subject. For her, the notion of resistance is often misapplied to many agents who are not in fact fighting for autonomy; rather, they are more concerned with affirming, upholding and inhabiting a set of norms than with resisting or subverting them.

But while Mahmood is surely correct that some movements are better understood as affirmative movements that seek to affirm and uphold certain norms rather than as resistance movements, it is also important to recognize that these are not mutually exclusive. It is possible, after all, for a movement to resist a relation of power/oppression, and to simultaneously affirm a set of norms. Indeed, in many (most?) cases, social movements are doing just this. Even in her own account of the piety movement she studies, which she argues is an affirmative movement and not a resistance movement, we can, I think, see a form of resistance at play. As Mahmood herself explains, the piety movement has arisen at least in part as a response to particular norms and relations of power and oppression—in this case, ‘westernization’ and ‘secularization’, forces which are themselves understood in relation to a history of Western imperialism.

As such, in contrast to Mahmood’s own argument, it does not seem to follow that to understand the piety movement as engaged in a practice of resistance is to impute to it a commitment to autonomy. Rather, there appears to be an intermediate position which her own analysis reveals, but which she does not herself acknowledge because of her conflation of resistance and autonomy: that is, a form of agency that does, to some extent, resist a power relation, but is oriented toward the affirmation of norms/goods other than autonomy. The piety movement is an example of this, as are many ecological and environmental movements which clearly affirm and actualize an alternative way of living, as well as resist a number of power relations, but do not affirm a humanist goal of autonomy. Whereas Mahmood argues that resistance and autonomy are inextricably linked, I am suggesting that we maintain some distance between these terms by distinguishing between (a) practices of freedom/resistance against a relation of power/oppression, and (b) practices for autonomy. After all, practices of freedom/resistance do not necessarily involve an affirmation of autonomy, but rather may involve affirming and inhabiting any number of other goods, in what I have called a form of ethico-political actualism. The point here, in short, is that an agent can enact a particular practice of freedom, resistance, or transgression with respect to a specific relation of power/oppression, without having to affirm freedom or autonomy per se. As such, this analysis reveals that autonomy cannot be assumed to serve as a meta-norm upon which to build solidarity among social movements, even amongst those that can be understood as resistance movements.

Furthermore, this analysis can also help us to see why, even amongst movements struggling against relations of oppression, ‘anti-oppression’ itself will not be able to serve as a meta-norm upon which to build solidarity. In order to understand why this is, we must first be careful to distinguish between two types of oppressions, each of which involves a distinct form of difference. One type of oppressive relation, which we might call a dividing relation, imposes a negative form of difference, or a form of difference that the oppressed seek to overcome or transcend. Resistance to this type of oppression involves the assertion or affirmation of a type of positive sameness over and against the imposed form of difference. By contrast, the other type of oppressive relation, which we might call an assimilative relation, does not impose a form of negative difference, but rather imposes a form of negative sameness. Resistance to this type of oppressive relation involves the assertion of a form of positive difference over and against the imposed sameness. Clearly, Mahmood’s case study, insofar as it does involve an oppressive relation of some kind, provides an example of an assimilative relation in response to which a form of positive difference is affirmed (e.g. when a threatened religious tradition is affirmed and practiced in response to a form of assimilative liberal-secular power, or secularization), whereas Mouffe and Day focus on dividing relations.

But it should also be noted that the line between dividing relations and assimilative relations is usually not clear, and many forms of oppression involve both simultaneously. First, many oppressive relations which appear, at first blush, to be assimilative relations—because, for example, they involve the oppression of a way of life or an established ethical/religious tradition—often engender not only a form of resistance that affirms and practices an ethical difference, but also a form of resistance that demands a type of positive sameness (e.g. equal right to practice their religion). Similarly, many oppressive relations which initially appear to be dividing relations—such as sexism, racism, and capitalism, for example—can also be experienced and resisted as assimilative relations. In some of these cases, the oppressive relation generates and imposes a negative form of difference, which then gets transvalued into a positive form of ethical difference and asserted by the oppressed (e.g. when the racial difference imposed by racial oppression is mobilized as a form of ethical difference in response to relations of racism and white supremacy, as in forms of Black Power that affirm blackness as a positive ethical identity). In other cases, the oppressive relation turns an existing form of difference into a negative difference, which then gets mobilized by the oppressed as a threatened ethical tradition (e.g. when the gender difference exploited by patriarchal gender relations is affirmed as a positive ethical difference, as in forms of ethical- or difference-feminism that are concerned with the assimilation of femininity by masculinity). And in still other cases, the imposition of a form of negative difference by an oppressive relation is taken up as an assimilative threat to, or violation of, some other positive ethical tradition not directly or straightforwardly targeted by the oppressive relation (e.g. when a Sikh affirms and mobilizes her/his religious tradition in response to patriarchal gender relations, as in forms of Sikh feminism). While the line between them is therefore very blurry and always contested, it is nonetheless important to be aware of the ways in which relations of oppression can be experienced as both dividing and assimilative relations, and can therefore engender forms of resistance that both assert a positive sameness, and affirm a positive difference.

If diverse movements happen to assert a similar form of positive sameness in relation to their oppression (e.g. autonomy and/or anti-oppression, freedom and/or equality), then, this convergence may be able to serve as a unifying commitment among these movements. This certainly appears to be how Mouffe and Day conceptualize solidarity-building among diverse struggles. However, insofar as various forms of resistance to oppression also involve diverse forms of actualism, and insofar as the forms of positive ethical difference being actualized are not necessarily compatible or commensurable, then an ‘anti-oppression’ that abstracts away from the actual content of ethical differences cannot be relied upon as a meta-norm upon which to build solidarity among diverse movements. Indeed, solidarity, in this case, must be built from the ground up, from directly within the deep diversity of ethical differences, and without meta-norms that are artificially regarded as transcending this diversity.

But there is yet another reason arising from this discussion why difference cannot be thought of simply in terms of overcoming oppression. This is because we cannot even know what constitutes oppression, and therefore what it would mean to overcome it and how we should respond to it, other than against a horizon of ethical purposes. Oppression, in other words, is not some independent entity that can be analyzed and critiqued outside of a normative horizon. Within the modern secular-humanist tradition, as I have argued, oppression is given meaning in relation to the affirmation of individual and group autonomy. As such, this tradition enables gender or class oppression, for example, to be critiqued and resisted through an affirmation of autonomy. But these forms of oppression can also be critiqued and resisted through many other ethical traditions and frameworks, and in relation to other sets of ethical goods and purposes. Diverse ethical traditions, in other words, affect what will even be regarded as positive/negative sameness and positive/negative difference, and therefore what constitutes a dividing relation and an assimilative relation, and how they should each be responded to. As such, oppression cannot be analyzed or resisted together independently of difference, because ethical difference actually modulates the nature and character of oppression, and of proper responses to it. This renders untenable the notion of a freestanding critical analysis of, and resistance to, the operation of power and oppression.



36. Day does not appear to acknowledge this convergence between liberalism and anarchism, at one point suggesting that the commitment to autonomy comes from anarchism and autonomist Marxism, while liberalism’s commitment is to respect and recognition (168).


5.6 Conclusion

One might object to my inclusion of Mahmood’s case study into the learning curve I have laid out here. After all, there is no indication from Mahmood’s account that the piety movement she studies is trying to build political ties with other movements, and certainly not with the network of anti-globalization, global justice, anti-neoliberal, leftist, or otherwise ‘progressive’ movements from below which have been the focus of this chapter. Surely, it may be argued, this network of movements has some kind of oppositional or emancipatory commitments in common which the piety movement does not share, and which therefore makes the latter’s inclusion here inappropriate or out of place. Indeed, as we have seen, Mahmood herself is hesitant to attribute to this movement any kind of grand, oppositional political motive that might bring it into conversation or coalition with other movements.

Nonetheless, one of Mahmood’s main points is to show how the piety movement challenges the limits of ‘progressive’ political languages, frameworks, judgements and sensibilities. And this is precisely why I find it important to bring this work into conversation with the three other critical ‘progressive’ traditions I examined. Global networks of social movements today bring any number of diverse struggles and movements into contact, and potentially into relationship, with any number of others. Furthermore, cooperation among these movements can be produced by any number of negative or positive, oppositional or affirmative, convergences. Resistance to imperialism, which has been my focus in this dissertation, provides only one such nodal point among many others. As such, no, there is no single set of commitments that unites a global network of movements, especially at its edges (Conway 2012); rather, the network hangs together through a dense and complex web of diverse, criss-crossing, and intersecting interests and commitments; of cooperation and competition, convergences and divergences, affinities and aversions, friends and enemies. For those who are serious, then, about creating ‘one world with many worlds in it’ (to use the popular Zapatista slogan) — and not just as a future goal, but as something to actualize and bring into being in the present — one of the crucial tasks is to think through the challenges of deep diversity, and more specifically of deep ethical difference — including the kinds of differences between secular-humanist forms of progressive politics, and an Islamic women’s piety movement.

One of the key challenges in this regard, to which I have tried to draw attention in this
chapter, is the challenge of moving beyond top-down approaches to difference which attempt to deal with ‘difference’ in the singular — that is, in the abstract — through an appeal to a meta-norm that simultaneously transcends, reconciles, and yet enables concrete differences. I have argued that all three of the critical progressive traditions I surveyed rely, albeit in somewhat different ways and different senses, on the modern meta-norm of autonomy in this way, treating it as a higher-order norm that allows them to abstract away from concrete ethical differences, rather than as a central ethical commitment of a modern, secular-humanist way of life. As such, these traditions can each be thought of as subintern traditions to modernity — that is, they are subordinate (critical) traditions, but are nonetheless internal to modernity because they share its central form of problematization: the struggle over the autonomy of individuals and peoples.

The encounter with deep ethical difference, however, cannot simply occur within modernity in a way that allows moderns to remain safely entrenched in their already-accepted ethico-political tradition. Indeed, the pretension to be able to do so is itself an expression of the hegemonic power of modernity. And this is one of the central dangers here: that modern, especially liberal-democratic, forms of power will be reinscribed and reproduced within the network(s) of social movements attempting to realize a new world with room for many worlds in it. Taking the imperial power of liberal-democracy seriously means that many of us have to come to terms with the fact that our languages of the good and of emancipation are themselves implicated and complicit in pervasive forms of global power, injustice, oppression, assimilation, and destruction. And if this new world is built using only these modern languages and normativities, a number of modernity’s dividing and assimilative relations will surely be reproduced. As such, in this chapter I have attempted to trace a number of steps to help move beyond this family of political languages.

A first step in the learning curve I have sketched out here is to provincialize liberal-democratic norms that were regarded as universal and transcendental, and instead to regard these as particular ethico-political commitments. A second step is to recognize ethico-political movements that are not oriented toward, and therefore not constrained by, modern political institutions. A third step is to move beyond the idea that differences need to
be hegemonized by a common political project, even if it is by a (now-provincialized) liberal-democratic project. A fourth step is to no longer rely upon a meta-narrative of modernization to limit the forms of difference that need to be taken seriously in the first place. A fifth step is to begin to take seriously the many movements that are neither oriented toward autonomy nor against oppression, but toward any number of goods or visions, and to pay attention to the infinitely diverse ways in which various movements assert forms of sameness and/or difference in relation to one another.

To recognize and affirm this complex web of deep ethico-political diversity is not to say that all differences are incommensurable, or that common goals and cooperation are not possible. Rather, it is to say that all convergences that make up this web will be provisional, situated, and shifting, and cannot be posited in advance from within one language, framework, ideology, or way of life. These convergences must be earned and built from the ground up, from within concrete relationships of trust, humility, care, and cooperation across difference, and within dialogues that are critical, comparative, and ethical in their forms of reasoning. From the perspective of the participants involved, what is enacted here is not a form of “groundless solidarity” (Day 2005) or a “solidarity without bounds” (Kurasawa 2004), as some have suggested. Rather, these practices and relationships of solidarity remain firmly grounded and rooted within the dense field of ethical commitments and differences, not in abstraction from it.


Chapter 6
Conclusion: Sikhi as Ethico-Political Practice

Truth is high, but higher still is truthful living.
–Guru Nanak

This dissertation has been an attempt to think through the hegemony and imperialism of liberal-democratic modernity, and the possibilities for forms of politics rooted in subaltern(ized) difference. One of the great challenges involved in resisting this form of hegemony is that liberal-democracy itself offers a broad family of evaluative languages that includes not only dominant languages that function to conserve and protect existing power relations, but also a wide range of robust and well-developed critical languages of resistance that can be used to challenge and subvert existing power relations. While the latter do provide the means of internal critique, these critical (or subinternal) languages share with the dominant languages a basic form of life rooted in the structures, social formations, and self-understandings of modernity. As such, the struggle between the dominant and critical languages of modernity does little to address the relation of this form of life to other forms of life, and in particular to the processes of subalternization of all non-modern ways of life and forms of normativity. Indeed the adoption and reliance on subinternal languages of resistance by subordinate groups helps to propagate and strengthen the hegemony of liberal-democracy, and the corresponding subalternization of alternative normative traditions and ways of life.

These processes of subalternization of alternative normative traditions are further complicated by the fact that liberal-democracy’s critical languages are built upon the image of an autonomous subject whose freedom and equality ostensibly allows pluralism and difference to flourish. As such, these languages carry a promise of emancipation and of the protection of difference—indeed, of providing the very preconditions for difference. These promises serve to channel alternative normative traditions into this modern, liberal-democratic form of life itself—to take up and utilize liberal-democracy’s critical resources as its own, and as a means to its own ‘interests’. The interaction of alternative normative traditions with liberal-democratic languages therefore causes an internal bifurcation with which most alternative normative traditions are grappling today: the divide between a modern, liberal-democratic form of the tradition and other forms of the tradition that are not epistemically adjusted to the priority of the modern, liberal-democratic form of life. In other words, this is a divide between those forms of a tradition that are now subinternal to liberal- democracy, and those that remain subaltern. The resulting split between ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’ articulated by Mahmood Mamdani is a phenomenon that arises not only within the Muslim community, then, but within practically any alternative normative tradition today (although not equally so) that comes into contact with the discourse of liberal-democracy. As Esteva and Prakash argue, paraphrasing Yvonne Dion-Buffalo and John Mohawk, subintern/subaltern peoples today have three choices: “become good subjects, accepting the premises of the modern West without much question; become bad subjects, always revolting against the parameters of the colonizing world; or become non-subjects, acting and thinking in ways far removed from those of the modern West” (1998: 45, original italics).

Indeed, my own motivation for analyzing this process of subinternization/subalternization arises from a concern over the sheer weight and vast assimilative power that liberal-democracy exerts over the ‘other’ normative tradition in my own life: the tradition of Sikhi. It is therefore appropriate, I hope, for me to conclude this project with a reflection on how the above bifurcation is playing out within the Sikh community today, especially in the Western diaspora. This is a community that has in recent years been labelled both a model minority and a terrorist threat; has experienced racism and racial profiling, exclusion, and state-sanctioned violence and persecution, while at the same time achieving high levels of public integration; and has been grappling simultaneously with struggles against assimilation, struggles for inclusion, and movements for internal reform and transformation. In response to these various pressures and struggles, a wide range of political forms have been generated within the community, but here I want to focus on what I see as two broad families of what we might call ‘Sikh politics’.

The first, which is the most prevalent, is a modern, liberal-democratic form of Sikh politics that is centrally concerned with the struggle for forms of multicultural accommodation/inclusion of Sikhs and Sikh practices within a broadly liberal-democratic public sphere, as well as for forms of Sikh nationhood/political sovereignty. This modernist form of Sikh politics tends to abstract away from the specific or particular content of Sikhi, instead utilizing dominant liberal-democratic tropes of rights, representation, recognition, popular sovereignty, and the oppression/autonomy binary to fight for inclusion into the modern state and supra-state institutions and orders. Central examples of this family of political struggles include the fight for the right to wear the kirpan in public schools and other public institutions, to be able to wear the dastaar (turban) and to keep kesh (uncut hair) in the U.S. military and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and to have Sikh representation in political institutions, as well as for an independent Sikh state. The second form of Sikh politics, by contrast, is an ethico-political form that approaches Sikhi as a normative tradition to be actualized in the lives and practices of Sikhs. Far from abstracting away from the positive content of Sikhi, this latter form of politics does not use modern liberal-democratic languages as an instrument or means to achieve Sikh ends or to protect Sikh difference; rather, it closes the gap between means and ends by starting on the ground of micro-scale practices of Sikhi rather than on macro-scale institutions (but does not end with the former), and shifts the focus from the formalistic modern question of how Sikhs can achieve full, free and equal personhood, citizenship and/or nation-statehood, to the question of what it means to be/become a Sikh and to live a Sikh way of life. Within this latter form of politics, ‘modernity’ is hardly taken for granted, but actually tends to be regarded as an assimilative force that often distorts and/or contains the meaning and practice of Sikhi.

To be sure, these two forms of politics are often not regarded as standing in tension with each other. Modern rights to freedom of religion, for example, are not usually seen as an intrusion by modernity upon Sikhi in the same straightforward way as are modern social pressures to cut one’s hair. Nonetheless, I want to suggest that there are increasing tensions between these two forms of politics within the Sikh community, as dissonances between Sikhi and modernity, Sikhi and liberal-democracy, are increasingly recognized, and as the constraints imposed by modern liberal-secular rule and culture upon Sikhi are increasingly identified and challenged. One very interesting example of such a tension between these two forms of Sikh politics arose in the recent debates over the campaign for inclusion of Sikhs into the U.S. Military. While several critical commentators suggested that, rather than fight for inclusion into any and all institutions of this kind, Sikhs ought to consider whether the institutions into which we seek inclusion are themselves congruent with the teachings of Sikhi, a number of others who were spearheading, participating in, and supporting the inclusion campaign argued that, regardless of our interpretations of Sikhi, those Sikhs who want to join the military should have the right to do so.

Of course, there is a very specific reason why the modern liberal-democratic form of Sikh politics abstracts away from the actual content of Sikhi. Indeed, part of the very point of the modern, secular, liberal-democratic project is to provide a moral and political order in which liberalism serves as a higher order set of values and norms—a set of meta-norms—that ostensibly provide the preconditions and necessary protections for the exercise of diverse ways of life, while at the same time requiring that these diverse ways of life, including perhaps especially religious ways of life, be epistemically adjusted so that their first-order beliefs, practices and norms internally conform to the second-order values, practices and norms of secular liberal-democracy. This applies equally to the more traditional liberalism of someone like John Stuart Mill, for whom the process of epistemic adjustment occurs through social reform in civilized societies and through colonial tutelage and despotism in ‘backward’ societies, as to the more contemporary, ‘post-secular’ liberalism of Jürgen Habermas, for whom religious citizens must undergo a series of ‘learning processes,’ ‘reconstructions,’ or ‘epistemic adjustments’ that allow them to ‘modernize’ and to reconcile their religious ways of life with the primacy and authority of modern, secular science and liberal-secular constitutionalism and individualism. Politics, in this tradition, is largely construed as withdrawing from first-order considerations, leaving these instead to a private sphere of individual choice, and establishing a public sphere based only upon the second-order norms and procedures that are required for social cohesion, political legitimacy, and peaceful co-existence in an otherwise diverse society. Indeed, then, the shoehorning of Sikhi that occurs within liberal-democratic Sikh politics, as well as its abstraction away from much of the distinctive content of Sikhi, is quite intentional, for this is regarded as a central condition of the social compact that ostensibly enables diverse citizens and groups to both live together peacefully, and be able to choose for themselves the way of life that best suits them.

The problem, however, with this tradition in general and therefore with the dominance of the liberal-democratic form of Sikh politics in particular is that it is precisely in the course of all of this ‘learning’, ‘reconstruction’, and ‘adjustment’ that the distinctiveness of diverse normative traditions is often lost, and that these traditions can and often do become radically disconnected from the everyday lives of their adherents. Rather ironically, the words of that great liberal imperialist himself, John Stuart Mill, are helpful in understanding this point. In the context of drawing a contrast between ‘dead dogma’ and ‘living belief’ in his treatise On Liberty, Mill argues that most Christians hold the doctrines of Christianity as a dead dogma, that is, in a way that is radically disconnected from the actual regulation of their conduct. He writes:

…it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to [the laws of the New Testament]. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance.

The argument I am making here bears some resemblance to Mill’s, in that I am suggesting that many forms of politics often engaged in by Sikhs in their ‘every-day judgments and practices’, and commonly understood as ‘Sikh politics’, have much more to do with the demands and interests of what Mill calls ‘worldly life’—but what I will call the structures of modern, capitalist, liberal-secular life and its forms of governmentality—than with Sikhi itself, and in fact serve to contain any radical potential of Sikhi. In the process of fighting to be integrated and included into, and therefore largely accepting the terms and constraints imposed by, modernity and its dominant ethico-political framework, forms of rule, and way of life—that is, in the process of subinternization—Sikhi can become a ‘dead dogma’, rather than a ‘living belief’. Sikhi is hollowed out, individualized and privatized such that its distinctive ontology and normative framework are either gutted or confined so effectively to a private realm that it is both disconnected from most aspects of Sikhs’ everyday lives and practices—especially in the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ spheres—and also rendered incapable of presenting any real critical challenge to those practices. Political integration can, in this way, serve to further cultural assimilation. This is precisely the phenomenon described by Esteva and Prakash in the following passage:

[The modern state] attempts to assure absolute fidelity of the citizens-subjects whose social and political relationships cease to have their own center, to subordinate themselves to public or private capital of the centralist state, founded on the individualization of the possessive, envious and covetous individual, the Homo oeconomicus, created in the West. The state attempts to homogenize all natural communities in its territory; to impose upon them the same way of thinking and behaving, the same habits, to establish what is called el imperio de la ley (“the Empire of the Law”). (1998: 132, original italics)[/size]

But as Wendy Brown, using Foucault, reminds us, the power of modern liberal-democracy exceeds the power of the state alone. Modern governmental power goes well beyond the state; indeed, the state is itself to some degree governmentalized, or subjected to forms of governmentality which permeate the whole realm of the social (2006: 78-83).

This, then, is the great assimilative power of modern secular liberal-democracy: that while liberal-secular values, practices and norms are promoted and accepted as simply second-order norms—a set of enabling, capacitating, empowering meta-norms that do not rival or threaten first-order identities and beliefs, but, on the contrary, provide the necessary preconditions and protections for the exercise of those identities and beliefs—they nonetheless come to serve as the primary norms that orient and structure our basic, everyday form of life. As non-modern ways of life come to be adjusted to, dependent upon, and in fact built around, liberal-democratic norms, institutions, and forms of sociality, as well as capitalist economies—often through the very process of subalterns fighting for forms of freedom and equality within liberal-democratic modernity—alternative normative traditions are privatized, displaced, restructured, and marginalized. To use Mill’s phrasing again, those religious ‘maxims’ that ‘stand in direct opposition’ to the demands of worldly life, or those that do not ‘go a certain length’ with adherents’ everyday judgments and practices, are largely discarded, and in the process, any alternative contenders for their allegiance (and the forms of radical difference contained therein) are neutralized with respect to any real ability to regulate their conduct. This is the phenomenon described by Talal Asad (1996), when he says that “insofar as certain modern forms of religiosity have been identified with sets of abstracted belief-statements which have barely anything to do with people’s actual lives, you get the curious phenomenon of Christians, non-Christians, and atheists allegedly believing in or rejecting religion, but living the same kind of life.” The irony here, of course, is that this containment of alternative normative traditions which often causes them to become ‘dead dogma’ is part of the very point of the modern, secular, liberal-democratic project that John Stuart Mill himself and others were so instrumental in justifying and disseminating globally.

Of course none of this is to say that liberal-democratic forms of Sikh politics involve only a one-way process of assimilation of Sikhi into an overarching liberal-secular structure, or that Sikhs cannot and do not practice liberal-democracy differently than others. The specificities of Sikhi can and do play a modulating role in how Sikhs practice and inhabit liberal-democratic norms and forms of subjectivity, and Sikhs have played a very important role in modifying and expanding liberal-democratic norms in ways that may not have happened otherwise. Indeed, to take only one commonplace example, the fight to wear the kirpan in public schools and institutions has provoked a great deal of thought and reworking of the liberal tradition in directions that may not have otherwise happened, as evidenced by, if nothing else, the fact that the ‘Sikh kirpan’ case study plays a central role in the literature and jurisprudence on liberal multiculturalism and debates over religious freedom. Modifications of liberal-democratic norms are certainly possible, but my basic claim is that these interventions largely remain as modifications within, rather than transformations of, the general terrain of modern liberal-secular forms of rule. What is modified, amended, and/or expanded here are the central categories, values, and practices of liberal-secular rule, which are not displaced according the distinct logic(s) and categories of Sikhi, but rather maintain their privilege and place as the central structural and organizational categories.

This is precisely where the importance of the second, subaltern form of Sikh politics becomes clear, as it provides a crucial form of resistance to the assimilative power of liberal-democracy and its processes of subinternization. This form of ethico-political practice, or what I have otherwise been calling a form of ‘actualism’, is itself not new, of course—attempts to actualize or to live up to the normative tradition of Sikhi are as old as the tradition itself. Nonetheless, the specifically political aspect of this practice has largely been concealed, obscured, or contained by modern frameworks that have construed Sikhi as a ‘religion’, and therefore as something separate from ‘politics’. Indeed the very shift away from the English term ‘Sikhism’ and toward the Punjabi term ‘Sikhi’ is meant to reflect a rejection of the constraints imposed by colonial vocabulary and Western regimes of knowledge that constructed ‘Sikhism’ as a set of relatively abstract metaphysical doctrines, belief-statements or truth-claims, and to instead recover a sense of ‘Sikhi’ as an embodied, practical tradition. In doing so, Sikhi no longer remains simply a religion in the modern sense, but becomes a non-compartmentalized way of life, a practical tradition that can orient conduct across a variety of social spheres, rather than being contained within a single sphere.

Sikhi is returned in this process to its roots as a radical social movement, as a kind of transformative praxis that operates according to an autonomous logic that need not be subordinated to the ‘higher-order’ practical rationality of hegemonic institutions, and whose politics is not primarily based on making demands of, or gaining power within, these institutions, but on actualizing a different way of life here and now through practices that prefigure or enact an alternative set of social values and practical relations. Sikhi as an ethico-political practice therefore re-unites Sikhi’s commitment to both miri and piri, to both transformative social organization and communal life as well as to individual detachment from both ego/self and material life. This re-thinking and re-grounding of the thought and practice of Sikhi beyond the constraints of the theory and practice of liberal-democratic modernity is today occurring not only in the academic realm of Sikh Studies (Mandair 2009), [37] but also within emerging social movements like the Sikh Activist Network in the greater Toronto area.

The key challenge for Sikhi as an ethico-political practice, then, involves the attempt by Sikhs to extend the teachings and practices of Sikhi throughout all the spheres of their lives, or, perhaps more accurately, without regard for the differentiation of social spheres that is so central to theories of modernity and modernization. This involves developing new habits of applying the categories and normativities of Sikhi both in relations among Sikhs and in relations with non-Sikhs, to realms both within and beyond the Sikh community for which this previously may have seemed unnecessary or inappropriate. It will involve asking what Sikhi has to say (or how it can be used as a resource to think) about economic and political relations, about relations of power and oppression, about the environment, about pluralism and the diversity of normative traditions, about gender relations, and about the central goods that should guide our spiritual and material lives and our forms of critique of the same. In short: are there modern problems for which Sikhi can provide solutions? Answering this question will also involve exploring and experimenting with how to actualize or practice Sikhi here and now.

To be clear, Sikhi as an ethico-political practice is not a hegemonic or assimilative project. This is not an attempt to gain modern political power in order to legislate or enforce universal Sikh norms over Sikhs and non-Sikhs using the coercive power of the state. Sikhi, after all, is not a juridical or legislative tradition; it emphasizes truthful living over doctrines of truth, virtuous practice over universal moral and religious law. Furthermore, Sikhi is not an evangelical tradition that seeks to convert or assimilate others, but neither is it a relativistic tradition. It is neither a universalistic, nor a particularistic, tradition, but something closer to what I have called a common tradition. A central tenet of Sikhi is that there are many paths to spiritual enlightenment, so there is no impulse to proselytize or engage in missionary work; rather, a Sikh simply challenges others, through words and through her own example, to live up to the best in their own traditions. Sikhi is a deeply pluralistic tradition, committed to the flourishing of deeply different ways of life, but its pluralism is not rooted in a modern notion of autonomy.

Furthermore, Sikhi as an ethico-political practice certainly takes seriously unjust power relations and forms of oppression within to the Sikh community; indeed one of its primary tasks is surely to confront and transform these relations. However, this approach regards Sikhi as providing its own resources for internal critique and internal consistency. There is no such thing as a formal or abstract critique of power that can be used to analyze Sikh social relations and institutions; most that claim to offer such a critique are based in a naturalized secular-humanist ontology and conception of the subject, one that is backed up by the coercive power of liberal-democratic institutions. Any critique of power is based in an affirmation of a distinct form of subjectivity and set of normative goods, and as such, Sikhi can itself provide an internal (albeit essentially contested) standard for a critique of power relations. One rather simple place to begin to think about a Sikh critique of power, then, could be with Sikhi’s distinct ethical system, comprised of five vices or ‘thieves’ (lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego/pride), and five virtues (truth, contentment, compassion, humility, and love).

However, in thinking of Sikhi as a practical and normative tradition that has the ability to guide a holistic way of life, this tradition should not be thought of in a narrow sense, with regard only to its central ‘doctrines’, ‘values’, or ‘beliefs’; rather, it should take into account the full breadth and depth of this diverse and contested tradition, including both its symbolic and material content, and how all aspects of this tradition can serve as sources for anchoring and/or orienting the ethico-political practices of Sikhi. As such, practices of Sikhi can be those that draw upon any number of aspects of this broad and (critically) holistic tradition, including its language(s), history, scriptures, exemplary figures, normative values and frameworks, historical and contemporary customs and practices, popular narratives and meanings, social and religious institutions, and so on. Ethico-political practices of Sikhi could involve abstaining from forms of consumerism and consumption as a way of detaching from maya; developing alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and other parallel institutions within the Sikh community oriented toward Sikh goods and values; struggling to establish non-hierarchical and egalitarian workplaces as an expression of nimrata (humility) and a rejection of lobh (greed) and ahankar (ego/pride); establishing forms of communal and cooperative living, such as those encouraged and practiced by Guru Nanak; attempting to extend and apply the ethos and discipline involved in keeping the five kakkars to other aspects of one’s life in an effort to live up to the ideal of the saint soldier; developing a form of Sikh feminism that is not grounded in modernity’s autonomous subject, but in a distinctly Sikh subject; or re-imagining and re-institutionalizing langar (free, communal kitchen and meals) beyond the confines of the gurdwara. By expanding Sikhi’s ability to guide our conduct in every aspect of our lives, we engage in practices that not only project from subaltern difference, but also begin to actualize a post-imperial, post-modern, post-liberal, post-capitalist, post-secular way of life.



37. For the beginnings of a very interesting dialogue between Sikh Studies and Indigenous Studies, see Johnson, Greg. 2011. “Religion and the Specter of the West.” Interventions 13(1): 146-49.