What’s Wrong with Conflict Theory: It’s our liberal blind spot

Nick Tobia

In a brief presentation (delivered on 19 July 2016), NCPACS Director Kevin Clements posed the question on why peace and conflict researchers did not predict the global drift towards the Right. He decried the perplexing, meteoric rise of right wing hardliners such as Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, the victorious Brexit discourse of “taking back control” from Brussels, and the grave consequences on a number of peace-related issues around the world. He lamented that rapid departure from an overarching discourse of inclusive cosmopolitanism, and the current slide into racism, xenophobia, prejudice and discrimination. Within these dramatic changes, peace scholarship in a nutshell finds itself flat-footed.

I offer that the “global drift” towards right-wing populism occurs within what critics of inclusive cosmopolitanism have long ago identified as the blindspot of liberalism and its various iterations. Back in 1993, a radical democratic theorist named Chantal Mouffe argued that the main shortcoming of liberalism, is that it is fundamentally not designed to decide in an undecidable terrain of modern politics. This terrain is that wherein we find a political arena of extreme plurality of identities and discourses that are not all entirely rational or reasonable. While liberalism by design always foresees a discoverable “harmonious and non-conflictual” intersection between all discourses that is obtainable through dialogue or communicative action, it is ill-prepared and shocked when confronted with irreducibly conflictual discourses. At the moment when diametrically opposed discourses leave a polity with no choice but to decide, liberalism according to Mouffe is rendered inutile because it is “blind to the specificity of the political in its dimension of conflict/decision.” By 2005, Mouffe already noted the right wing trends in European parliaments, and predicted the rise of the populist as a response to the inability of neutered and ambiguous coalition governments to definitively decide matters of importance to the polity.

Prof. Clements laments further the failings of peace scholarship in understanding emotions, the affective dimension, the mob mentality, and their consequences to peace. Mouffe and other sympathetic theorists long ago warned that the affective dimension of politics is beyond the purview of liberalism’s foundations of rationalism and individualism. The continued denial of the validity of emotions and group identifications in the political arena, does not destroy them; they simply sublimate into other forms and domains. This current era is that sublimation. That scholars like ourselves, from outside of radical democratic thought, know so little about emotions and mobs, is explained by how long we have belittled such things. Just as the liberal content of our liberal peace paradigm denies these, we too are complicit in this denials.
Now we, who identify more with the center and Left, are confronted with an emerging Right, and our first instinct is to associate these baser qualities of emotions and mobs to them. Absent-mindedly, we find ourselves belatedly doing what the Right had been doing all along on its way to generating popular support – now we are rallying around identities associated with our liberal principles, and now we are the ones drawing lines in the sand,. Except, of course, the Right is resoundingly much better at rallying around identities, and it is much better at drawing lines in the sand.

  • Nick Tobia is a research student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.