The Review of Politics

Research Article

John Stuart Mill and the Antagonistic Foundation of Liberal Politics

Brandon P. Turnera1

a1 Clemson University


The agonistic critique of liberalism argues that liberal theory unwisely eliminates conflict from the design of liberal-democratic institutions and understandings of liberal citizenship. John Stuart Mill anticipates and resolves the agonistic critique by incorporating several theories of antagonism into his political theory. At the institutional level, Mill places two antagonisms at the center of his political theory: the tension between the popular and bureaucratic elements in representative government, on the one hand, and that between the democratic and aristocratic elements in modern society, on the other. These tensions guarantee the fluidity of the political sphere. At the experiential level, Mill's embrace of antagonism is even more complete, as he argues that even our objectively correct opinions must be ceaselessly contested to become properly ours. The theory that emerges is both agonistic and liberal; further, it calls into question current liberal attitudes concerning conflict and antagonism.