EssaysIn DepthLiberal Democracy in Question

Against Anarchism

For Edward J. Snowden and Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley): Heroes of transnational publicity — in gratitude and with admiration.

One strategy for reimagining public sphere theory in the current conjuncture is neo-anarchism. Distrustful of global governance institutions, and of the expert networks entangled with them, this approach looks to anti-systemic movements as agents of transformation. Valorizing the independent militancy of Occupy, WikiLeaks, and the World Social Forum, it affirms efforts to build counterhegemonic centers of opinion and will formation, far removed from circuits of institutionalized power. Aiming to counter the hierarchical logic of administrative rule, it seeks to reconstruct public sphere theory in a way that gives pride of place to autonomous direct action by subaltern counterpublics and “strong” (decision-making) publics in civil society. Where else, after all, are we likely to find democratizing forces that can advance the theory’s ideals under current conditions?

Proponents of this approach reject schemes that would democratize global governance by transferring the powers of rogue institutions to transnational parliaments, accountable to transnational publics and electorates, charged with reining in private power and with regulating common affairs on a global scale. For neo-anarchists, that strategy cannot empower autonomous public opinion. On the contrary, it is in the nature of formal institutions, whether national, transnational or global, to functionalize input from civil society, incorporating the latter into the autopoetic processes by which they maintain and expand their own power. Only a project of “engaged withdrawal” from the institutions of global governance can evade the logic of cooptation. Only the concretization of counterpublicity in self-organized collectives and self-managed councils can dispel heteronomy, restoring capacities for self-determination, alienated to external governing powers, to their rightful subjects. To realize the ideals of public sphere theory requires, in sum, that we abandon the political project associated with it. Instead of mobilizing public opinion to influence public authorities, we should circumvent the latter altogether, averting cooptation through stealth and cultivating autonomous action to transform social arrangements from the bottom up.

The neo-anarchist approach sounds breathtakingly radical. Raising questions that transcend the current conjuncture, even as they surface acutely within it, it alters the deep grammar of public sphere theory. The latter has always assumed a two-track model of politics: on a first, informal track, autonomous publics in civil society generate public opinion, while on a second, formal track, political institutions make authorized binding decisions and carry them out. The theory’s chief claim, of course, concerns the relation between the two tracks: conditional on free communication between them, democracy requires that the second track channel the first, empowering public opinion by translating the discursively generated sense of the general interest into binding decisions and authorized action. Neo-anarchists reject such arrangements. Given a foothold, they claim, the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of civil society. To emancipate, the latter one must eliminate formal institutions. But that implies an entirely different model, premised on a single-track understanding of democratic politics.

To assess the neo-anarchist argument requires resolving some questions of interpretation. Is the rejection of political institutions merely a matter of transitional strategy, a way of getting from where we are now to the world envisioned in the two-track model, in which governing bodies implement the considered desires of civil society? Or is it a matter of principle, which signals a different end goal, a world without institutionalized public powers? Likewise, do neo-anarchists hold that formal political institutions merely tend to coopt public opinion, all other things being equal? Or do they view that outcome as an ironclad necessity, entailed by the very nature of government as such?

As I see it, the stronger thesis, which takes as its end goal a democracy without formal political institutions, is conceptually incoherent. Premised on a single-track model of politics, this thesis purports to dispense with the distinction between civil society publics and institutional actors. It assumes, accordingly, that a single body (the self-managed council) can play the part at once of both those instances. But this presupposes that everyone can always act collectively on everything that concerns them. Failing that proposition, which is patently absurd, the question of accountability must arise: in what way and to what extent are a council’s actions accountable to non-participants who are affected by or subjected to its decisions? These “others” are, in effect, the council’s public(s). From their perspective, moreover, the council itself is an institutionalized power, to be subjected to independent scrutiny and, when necessary, to contestation. Qua political actors, then, self-organized collectives do not circumvent the need for autonomous publics. But the converse is equally true. Far from being self-implementing, publics require institutionalized powers to enact their will. Counterpowers by definition, they lose their raison d’être in the absence of such powers, whose actions they seek to align with public opinion. The civil society counterpart of formal political actors, informal publicity can never replace the latter, but must strive ad infinitum to guide and constrain them. In general, then, the distinction between publics and institutions is not so easily dispensed with. It returns, inevitably, to haunt the neo-anarchist scenario. An approach that would simply scrap the two-track model is conceptually incoherent.

If anarchism is not viable as an end goal, how does it fare as a transitional strategy in the current conjuncture? Certainly, the affirmation of anti-systemic movements and subaltern counterpublics affords a salutary corrective to those who put their faith in mainstream national media or in the “transnational advocacy networks” of INGO experts that cluster around global governance institutions. After all, it is only thanks to direct action by the independent militants associated with Occupy, WikiLeaks, and the World Social Forum that radical criticism has managed to pierce the veil of economistic and militaristic apologetics that dominates official public discourse in the present era. But anarchist tactics are not themselves sufficient to effect fundamental structural change. The strategy of evading, rather than confronting, the institutions of global governance lets off scot-free the mammoth concentrations of private power­­ whose interests now rule. In fact, finance and corporate capital are the chief beneficiaries of efforts to retrench, let alone deinstitutionalize, public authorities. Better to fight to democratize, than to abolish, the institutions that regulate transnational interaction in a globalizing world. Better, too, to adopt the account of subaltern counterpublics I proposed in “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” which counseled “engaged withdrawal” not for the sake of any principled separatism, but as an agitational tactic, aimed at empowering subordinate voices in the battle for hearts and minds in wider publics. Better, in sum, to treat direct action as one among several weapons in one’s arsenal, and not as the master strategy for social change.

The larger lesson is “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Neo-anarchists are right that the process of translating public opinion into implementable policy can easily go awry — as, for example when emancipatory claims are rewritten as administrative regulations, and citizens are turned into clients, a process I analyzed at the national level in a 1985 essay, “Struggle over Needs.” But, as I argued there, translation should neither be equated with domination nor eschewed altogether. The better course is to recognize the power of bureaucratizing tendencies and to envision counter-instances that work against them. That was the spirit in which I contemplated the possibility of “hybrid strong publics” in “Rethinking the Public Sphere” — a proposition exemplified in participatory budgeting and aimed not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.

In that spirit, too, I conclude here that a critical theory of the public sphere should incorporate neo-anarchism’s best insights, while rejecting wholesale anarchism. The latter perspective is implicitly vanguardist, I think, appealing chiefly to (especially male segments of) a precariat of relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth, on the one hand, and to isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid, on the other. Certainly, the view that representation is tantamount to domination is far too hyperbolic to tap the potential for broad-based emancipatory struggle in our situation. In that sense, neo-anarchism fails to sustain the tension between fact and norm required by a critical theory.

This post is excerpted from Fraser, “Publicity, Subjection, Critique: A Reply to My Critics,” forthcoming in Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser debates her Critics, ed. Kate Nash (Polity Press, 2014).


Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (M.I.T. Press, 1991) pp. 109-142.

Nancy Fraser, “Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late-Capitalist Political Culture,” in Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (University of Minnesota Press and Polity Press, 1989), pp. 161-187.

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