An Interview with William E. Connolly

William Connolly

William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism and Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His book ‘The Terms of Political Discourse’ won various awards in 1999, and is widely held to be a major work in political theory. Connolly is also a contributing writer to The Huffington Post and a founding member of the journal Theory & Event. Connolly’s recent turn towards philosophies of ‘immanence’ and creative process will be on full display is his forthcoming A World of Becoming (2010). More here.

Mark Wenman is a Lecturer in political theory in the School of Politics and International Relations and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Social Sciences. He is a Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), and a member of The Analysis of Democratic Cultures Research Group.He completed his Ph.D. in the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme at the University of Essex in 2005, and before that he was educated at Birkbeck College (London), the University of Westminster, and Christ’s Hospital.

MARK WENMAN: Bill, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I would like to take up some of the themes we discussed when you visited Nottingham in 2007.1 Perhaps I can start by asking you questions about the development of your work and about how you see the different elements of your project fitting together. I will then move onto questions about your theory of ‘immanent naturalism’, and also your recent work on capitalism.

For a period of more than 30 years you have made important contributions to the discipline of political theory, you have engaged in many different debates, and — since the publication of Identity/Difference (Connolly, 1991) — you have developed your own distinctive ‘post-Nietzschean’ account of late-modern politics. One theme you have returned to repeatedly in your writings is the concept of ‘pluralism’. This has been of interest to you since your earliest publications — for instance The Bias of Pluralism (Connolly, ed., 1969) — and since the mid-1990s you have established your own account of ‘multi-dimensional’ or ‘network pluralism’: most notably in the Ethos of Pluralisation (Connolly, 1995) and Pluralism (Connolly, 2005). Over this period, the concept of pluralism has also undergone a remarkable series of developments in Anglo-American political thought more generally. In the late 1960s this term was associated with American political science, with the work of Robert Dahl, David Truman and others who were criticized by radical thinkers — including you — for their narrow conception of the political and their naive behaviouralist assumptions about the operations of political power. Subsequently, this term has undergone a renaissance, so that it is now used widely — and in a positive manner — by analytical liberals, deliberative democrats, and by those — such as you — who are inspired by post-structuralism. This development is surely related to the rise of identity politics and multiculturalism, as John Rawls would have it: we now live in a society defined by the ‘fact of pluralism’. However, we know from Friedrich Nietzsche that there is no such thing as facts, only interpretations, so could you please say something about your distinctive understanding of ‘pluralism’ and how it differs from these other approaches? What exactly is pluralism? And to what extent do contemporary liberal democratic societies approximate the ideal of pluralism? How have your thoughts changed on these issues over the past 30 years?

WILLIAM CONNOLLY: My thinking about pluralism has, as you say, shifted over the years, as I have encountered new events and have moved through intellectual encounters with Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Taylor, and Hampshire to those with Foucault, Nietzsche, Deleuze and James. Early on, I sought to show how ‘the fact’ of pluralism was exaggerated and how this exaggeration also served to obscure inequality. Most pluralist theory focused on a diversity of interests brought to the ‘governmental arena’. It seemed to me that when the independent power of corporations and other elites to shape the world was combined with their governmental power to veto policies that might rectify the adverse effects of those initiatives, the stratification of power became more transparent. I was also concerned, along with Peter Bachrach and Steven Lukes, with the ‘other face’ of power ignored by pluralist theorists of the day, power as the ability to stop potential issues from achieving sufficient definition to reach the public arena for decision.

It soon became clear to me that these concerns suggested a significant revision of democratic pluralism rather than its replacement. The rise of gay rights movements in the 1970s helped to prod me to dramatize how resistance to diversity flows from the visceral register of presumptive judgment into more refined modes of argument. To me, pluralism includes several dimensions. First, a pluralistic society is not merely one with multiple interests. It is multidimensional, involving diversity in the domains of creed, sensual disposition, gender practice, household organization, ethnic identification, first language, and fundamental existential orientations. The activation of multidimensional pluralism helps to open up public arenas and to ventilate the internal life of numerous organizations. Gays bring pressures to bear upon their churches; church activists apply it to their work place; feminists bring it to bear upon both, and so on.

Second, a pluralistic society is marked by recurrent tension between already existing diversity and new movements that press upon this or that established assumption about God, freedom, identity, legitimacy, rights, and the nation. This torsion between the politics of pluralism and that of pluralization is constitutive. Those who think we already have access to a definitive list of rights, for instance, miss how new rights periodically surge into being through a complex political process. The right to sexual diversity, to gay marriage, and to doctor assisted suicide, precarious as each is, were not even on the liberal list of rights a few decades ago. Drives to install them were launched below the register of legitimacy. One could pretend they were ‘implicit’, but to me such an assertion insinuates more logic into social and political processes than their real messiness allows. Movements of this type uncover power sedimented into established practices of identity, rights, and creed. Such an insight eventually invites you to rethink the logic of morality itself, perhaps supporting a shift from a fixed morality of principle, replete with previously unstated ‘implications’, toward an ethic of cultivation as you become alert to new forces arising in the world.

Third, attention to the first two dimensions pressed me to come to terms with the need for a positive ‘ethos of engagement’ between diverse, interdependent constituencies. This is particularly pertinent to a world in which the secular separation between private and public is exaggerated and secular proceduralism is insufficient to itself. Such an ethos solicits participants to recoil back upon their most fundamental creeds or philosophies — the two terms now move close together for me — to affirm without existential resentment the profound contestability of each in the eyes of others. Many priests, theorists, philosophers, economists, and media talking heads find this difficult to do. Such a bicameral orientation to citizenship is fundamental to the politics of pluralism. It is more difficult in circumstances where numerous forces press militantly against pluralism itself.

Thus, the other side of the theory is that many of the same forces that create opportunities to extend and heighten pluralism today also intensify the anxieties of those who resent the presence of living counter-examples to their own identities, faiths and household practices. Today pressures to pluralize and to fundamentalize the present encounter each other. This is a struggle that goes on within as well as between us.

Those are some elements in my rendering of pluralism. I should say that I also believe that numerous contemporary forces — including the globalization of capital, the rapid movement of people, things and affects across official borders, and the growing income differentials between regions of the world — intensify pressure for pluralization within and across territorial regimes. Pluralism is also connected to other practices. For instance, drives to reduce inequality within a state today are not likely to be successful unless a positive ethos of engagement is negotiated between multiple minorities of different types. The aspirations to pluralism and equality thus speak to each other now, despite what those who treat the highly centred nation as a precondition of equality say. Under contemporary conditions, without an ethos of pluralism, the drive to equality falters as chauvinist elites use opposition to immigrants, gays, single mothers, Muslims, and atheists to turn back egalitarian pressure. Similarly, without pressure toward a more egalitarian society one support for a positive ethos of pluralism is pulled away. So pluralism and egalitarianism now set conditions of possibility for each other.

The very forces noted above also make it essential for more citizens to participate periodically in cross-state citizen movements to put pressure from the inside and outside simultaneously upon states, corporations, and international organizations. That means that today, both the scope of diversity and the sites of political action have expanded. You might call that the fourth house of pluralism, as I construe it.

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