Politics and the Political

RELATED TERMS: Agonistic politics - Mouffe; Dissensus - Ranciere; Distribution of the sensible; Biopolitics and Biopower; Arendt; Heidegger; Lefebvre

Specific narrative environment designs may be said to be ‘political’ or to have political effects in some sense. In order to define more clearly what might be meant by this kind of assertion and to understand how a narrative environment might be said to act ‘politically’, it is worth pondering the distinction often made by contemporary political theorists between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.

Politics or policy (la politique in French, Politik in German), refers to concrete policy-making, decisions and actions, the struggle for power and its exercise; while ‘the political’ (le politique in French, das Politische in German) refers to the frame of reference within which ‘politics’ occurs, implying the notion of polity or political unity. This distinction, awkward in English, has made its way into Anglo-American political theory via European philosophy.

Oliver Marchart (2007) traces the history of this ‘political difference’ in Ricoeur, Arendt, Schmitt and Mouffe, through to Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, with diversions into Wolin, Sartori and others.

The theoretical differentiation between politics and the political occurs for the first time in German political thought with Carl Schmitt, while the habit of differentiating between these two concepts started in French thought in 1957, with Paul Ricœur’s essay ‘The Political Paradox’. This led Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe to adopt the differentiation which, in turn, motivated other theoreticians such as Claude Lefort and Alain Badiou to reformulate their own theory in terms of the political difference.

Ricoeur was responding to the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. He was shocked by the unexpectedness of the Budapest uprising and the severity of its suppression by Soviet troops. In his view, the event demonstrated the autonomy of the political as a domain of human experience, distinct from other domains such as the moral, economic or aesthetic. The political domain has own particular problems, dynamics, modes of action and normative criteria (Schaap, 2013).

The concept of the political is frequently invoked by post-Marxists and theorists of radical democracy. Reacting against the Marxist view of politics, both Schmitt and Arendt, as does Ricoeur, insisted on the autonomy of the political. French post-Marxists, including Claude Lefort, Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière, have drawn on these debates about the political to critically appraise the liberal human rights consensus that emerged in the wake of the Cold War as a basis for examining how human rights might be mobilised for an emancipatory politics (Schaap, 2013).

For Lefebvre, the difference between le politique and la politique enables a distinction (i.e. not a disassociation nor a separation) between the thinking of the political and political action.

In the work of Chantal Mouffe, ’the political’ refers to the dimension of antagonism that can take many forms and can emerge in different social relations. ‘Politics’, she takes to refer to the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions that seek to establish a particular order and to organise human co-existence in conditions which are always potentially conflicting, because they are affected by the dimension of ‘the political’.


Chambers, S.A. (2011). Jacques Ranciere and the problem of pure politics. European Journal of Political Theory, 10 (3), 303–326.

Marchart, O. (2007). Post-foundational political thought: political difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1965). The Political Paradox. In: History and Truth, translated by. Charles A Kelby. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 247-270.

Schaap, A. (2013). Human rights and the political paradox. Australian Humanities Review, 55, 1–22.