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Last 15 March a conference in the Royal College of Art in London brought together the illustrious theorists, Richard Sennett, Chantal Mouffe and Paul Gilroy, in front of a mostly student audience, with the aim of debating about non-consensual societies in the current configuration of Europe.
The heterogeneous profiles of the speakers from the start already marked the situation: Sennett, sociologist and town-planner, Mouffe, a convinced post-Marxist and Gilroy, lawyer for racial multiculturalism within the Anglo-Saxon environment. Faced with the challenge of having to debate the damaged idea of Europe today, the three centred their interventions on the possibility of imagining a Europe that wasn’t occupied (as it currently is) by the ruling neo-liberalism.
Mouffe always ended up returning to her hypothesis, in this case, the description of consensus as an obstacle for Democracy. A consensus that she identified with the birth of the neo-liberal discourse of the “centre” without parties, neither of the left nor of the right. How the only thing that these positions, marked by centrality and half-measures have been doing, since the 80s, is strengthen the ideological expansion of neo-liberalism. Mouffe talked of politics and of parties, and faced with her scepticism about the anarchic or social movements, such as the Indignados or the Occupy movement, she defended the need for new, strong parties on the left, such as SYRIZA in Greece or Olivier Besancenot in Francia. Mouffe remembered that right-wing populism called for left-wing populism (for example Beppe Grillo in Italia) and that it’s limited to think of populism as being only of the right. Mouffe seemed to transmit the message that the collision of trains of a distinct nature will always produce something new or unknown, instead of this prolongation of social apathy into which politics has fallen, where citizens have completely lost all their trust.
All this sounded strange to Sennett who, instead of parties, preferred to talk about cities. Consensus led him to refer to his concept of dialogical spaces (dialogue) that he opposed to dialectical spaces. Sennett talked of the dialogical cooperation amongst those who differ. His latest book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. (Yale University Press, 2012) comments along these lines, that is to say about an experience from which one deduces his preference for dialogue amongst those who differ than consensus amongst those who are the same. Well, here, Mouffe and Sennett talked of the same thing. But in an example of how the left can be so different, or plural (the three made allusions to their left-wing stance), Sennett differentiated his “dialogical” logic from the “dialectical”, as the latter remits once again to consensus through its final distillation into “synthesis”.
Such simplification or theoretical manipulation made it clear that it wasn’t really an adequate framework within which to debate contemporary Marxist theories. Sennett carried on with his argument about cities, tracing maps or demonstrating why London has more in common with Frankfurt than with, for example, Leeds. For the town-planner a new constellation of cities in Europe is the solution to overcome the out-dated organisation of the nation-states. We are no longer facing the old dichotomy of city versus country, so much as the need to trace maps, between twin, sister or cousin cities. What in some way or other was proposed was the possibility of imagining new cartographies of minorities, identities and languages within Europe. Something that already has a certain background in everything that has been said about critical regionalism applied to urban planning and the concept of the nation-state.
Gilroy occupied the centre of the debate between Mouffe and Sennett and more than anything established a link between the two, remembering how security is the principal obstacle for prosperous European relations. In addition there also appeared the well intentioned proposals of working less and consuming better, aiming for sustainability, and even the defence and recuperation of the position of the artisan (and consequently of art) in this need to reconnect communities to social and economic processes (Sennett).
An anecdote about the academic nature of this sort of political debate (let’s not forget, we were in an art school) occurred when Sennett began laconically to say that he didn’t disagree slightly but hugely with Chantal, who on hearing this turned in her chair full of glee and exclaimed “Great!” much to the delight of those present. However, the apparent antagonism ended up in nothing, an example of how even political theory isn’t capable of identifying any enemies, only of mediating the ambiguity between what is different and what is shared. To end with more consensus.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)