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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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Nancy Fraser

  • Ma___n_e L_Na__t

    The reason why these movements have stayed outside of institutional channels is because they have been told in no uncertain terms by those channels (government, labour unions, etc.) that the latter have no choice but to enact the will of the “market”. And that has been borne out: look at the European electoral experience where both left and right parties work as capital’s executives, and for that matter at the North American one, where the social democratic party in Canada recently came out against taxation of the wealthy.

    So, circumventing institutional channels is not a matter of doctrinal purity on these movements’ part. It’s a reaction to current political realities in which capitalism has been completely “renaturalized” (as Fraser puts it elsewhere). I don’t think anyone in these movements is calling for the elimination of institutions per se. And if they are, they’re probably 18 and they cut their teeth in Occupy, and we should pull them aside and have a conversation with them and give them a bunch of Kropotkin and Goldman to read.

    The real question is why mainstream political institutions so consistently enact the interests of capital, and how that could possibly be challenged. For example: the students at Cooper Union won some representation on the school’s board (through, note, an action that circumvented that institution and its processes, i.e. occupation of the president’s office). I would bet money that that inclusion will not result in a repeal of the tuition that was recently introduced. It’s more an opportunity to “vote your own tuition increase.”

    Anarchists aren’t categorically opposed to institutions. They’re interested in what kinds of organizational strategies are going to advance working class interests. And yeah, that includes the question of how we’re going to force governments back in the direction of (grudgingly) helping and protecting the working class. And it includes how we’re going to force labour unions to become organs of labour militancy and radicalism once again rather than agents of labour peace. Etc.

    The more I observe, act, live, and learn, the more it seems to me that change only ever comes as a result of militant direct action at the very roots. A nice example of that was the massive student strike that took place a year ago in Quebec. We’re talking really disciplined direct action that organized itself democratically through assemblies and was successful to precisely the extent that it circumvented existing student unions and labour unions and held the government’s feet to the fire instead of trusting their repeated bad-faith offers to “negotiate” (whereupon they always immediately tried to remove ASSE – the group organizing the strike – from the table). All of that makes the question of whether to “democratize” institutions seem incoherent to me. Or at least a little beside the point.

    Moreover, why is institutionalization being conflated with representation here? Especially when the only model on the historical record that seems to have been properly, functionally, non-pathologically democratic was the council system, as enacted after the Hungarian Revolution and during the Paris Commune.

    Finally, I find the “anarchists are privileged white males” critique really frustrating. Like, first of all, that’s a reference to an internal cultural matter for particular movements to sort out amongst themselves. Second, I don’t see what it has to do with the broader question of these movements’ credibility or effectiveness. To reduce Occupy to the dreadlocked hippie kids in Zuccotti actually falls in line with the mass media strategy of discreditation. Yes, I can tell you that if you ever went to Zuccotti, on any given day, you could not tell, by looking at that park and its temporary inhabitants, why this movement had caught on in more that 1,000 cities worldwide and garnered so much instantaneous support. Obviously that wasn’t due to the organizational strategy of the dreadlocked hippies, nor to their class or gender politics. It had to do with the simmering frustration on the part of the the unemployed, through the working class, to the middle class, on up – that is, on the part of the 99% for whom capitalism is not working.

    Having said that, of course a (sort-lived) movement is not going to effect significant and long-lasting change. I don’t understand why people keep criticizing Occupy for its lack of organizational efficacy. Movements are just movements – they’re not organizations, and they’re not organs of class power. But it behooves us to remind ourselves, over and over again, that before Occupy happened, the 2008 worldwide financial collapse was never discussed in political terms, as a political phenomenon, and phrases like “income equality” and “economic justice” never crossed North American politicians’ lips.

    • James_Richard_Bailey

      Well put, Ma___n_e L_Na__t. Your counterpoint to Nancy’s piece makes for a well rounded discussion.

    • faktaorientert

      Frasers perspective is vanguardist, I think, appealing chiefly to (especially female segments of) the former generation tenured professors of relative privilege and wealth.

      • WeAreMany

        This is a great example of our problems with academia. Too many academics live in a bubble, cushioned from the real world, where they can develop theories that are divorced from reality and only have to make sense in their own heads.

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  • Will

    What is “neo-anarchism” and where are you getting your information about it? It’s not an anarchist tendancy I’ve ever heard of and it sounds like a cunfused jumble of barely understood arguments from multiple schools of anarchist thought which would likely stand in opposition to each other on these issues. I’d like to engage with these thinkers at the source but for some reason your citations are not displaying in my browser. Can someone repost them in the comments? I’m really curious.

    • Matthew Adams

      Neo-anarchism is an invention with no basis outside of academia’s love of inventing useless new terms. The anarchism that exists today (or 95%+ of it by my fairly extensive experience) is either 1) syndicalist in an outdated way that hasn’t changed enough since 100 years ago, but at least retains the idea of organized mass direct action, or 2) insurrectionist, which attempts to update itself to a modern age but weakens itself with a disinterest or lack of faith in the possibility of mass action. Or 3) some strange combination of the two, or 4) not anarchism but a confused mess of liberal and social democratic ideas.

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  • Ellis

    Here’s my response to Nancy Fraser:

    • Nick Montgomery

      Another response to Fraser: Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

      • L. R. Diaz

        I wanted to read this column as I was interested in understanding what people find so redeeming, liberating, or maybe even hopeful about anarchism, but It’s hard to get past the ad hominem attack on Nancy Fraser that opens this blog and persists. Why presume to know what Dr. Fraser “hates,” for instance? The style of this blog makes it difficult to really take the “response” more seriously. Positing Anarchism as “vilified” is preposterous considering that it has become the face of new social movements to a significant degree. And lumping so many different strains of leftist politics into one category goes against all the post-modern prescriptions anarchists seem so attached to. Why politics has become a contest of who is more “radical” and more “outraged” is a mystery to me. Why not engage in honest and respectful dialogue, especially with colleagues and potential allies? This aversion to building bridges especially common among anarchists — from what I’ve found — is precisely one of the key elements that turns me off to this ideological strain. Cheers.

        • Nick Montgomery

          Well, it’s a polemical (and playful) reply to a polemic. There is plenty of rigorous, non-polemical writing out there on anarchism for anyone who cares to read it. A bunch of political traditions are being lumped together under one concept, but the concept itself (autonomous politics) marks the dissonance and openness of these divergent movements. I love honest and respectful dialogue; part of the argument here is that simplistic dismissals of anarchism (and the forcing of all politics into ‘two tracks’) makes that dialogue impossible.

          • L. R. Diaz

            Thanks, Nick. I didn’t see the playfulness aspect as I began reading it. Will try again.

            I do agree that dialogue has become impossible but I’m not sure it’s because politics has been pushed into two tracks. I remember this tension being around since I came of age in the 1990s (not a very long history, I know, but I’m just trying to say that it isn’t so new — not sure if that is what you were saying, but if seemed as though you thought of it as a more recent challenge maybe related to the divisive character of politics today). I’ve always thought that dialogue was made impossible by the very different emphases different political ideologies have, even among those on the left of the political spectrum.

    • L. R. Diaz

      I keep looking for a succinct explanation of the anarchist agenda that actually responds to Nancy Fraser’s blog but can’t seem to find that. Ellis, your response is a thorough list of the things you say Fraser gets incorrect about anarchism (since you claim there is no such thing as “neo-anarchism”), but you don’t explain why they are incorrect. What *is* the agenda behind anarchism? What is the ultimate objective? Fraser says that there isn’t an ultimate objective, so if she is wrong and there is one, then what is it? You say this:

      “Fraser goes on to state that while she applauds neo-anarchists for their
      impact on the socio-political situation anarchist tactics are not
      sufficient. It is not clear what tactics Fraser is referring to, she
      does however mention that evasion is one of them. This is a confusing
      statement since anarchists are the most confrontational political force
      in mainstream society and seek to empower people to confront power on a
      daily basis.”

      It seems to me your paragraph is what is unclear as it is easy to say “I confront power everyday” but harder to explain what that means. There are a lot of things that go unexplained in your sum of Fraser’s blog and it does not suffice to say that she is “wrong” without explaining *why* that is the case. But at least your blog actually takes on her arguments and does not consist of a personal statement of outrage like the link below yours does. Thanks for that.

  • WeAreMany

    As a supposed critique of anarchism, the author seems to be amazingly ignorant of the subject. I guess it’s easy to get carried away with lofty rhetoric when you don’t look at a single real-world example. Her discussion of councils is particularly ignorant because, like many academics who live in their little high-minded academic bubbles, she acts as if these issues are pure theory and that there are no examples to point to of people who are actually organized in a horizontal, inclusive way.

    I am by no means an expert when it comes to anarchism, but in my search for information over the years, I couldn’t help but come across many from the anarchist community that discuss horizontal organization. Has she never heard of Parecon? Mondragon? La Via Campesina? All of these demonstrate how networks of nested councils can channel decision-making power from the bottom up. And nowhere have I read anything in anarchist literature that suggests that we should do away with institutions altogether, but rather, we need to organize in such a away that no group has power over others.

    In one of the first books I ever read on anarchism, I was introduced to the idea of legitimate authority and illegitimate authority. For example, anarchists acknowledge that a doctor is an authority on medicine. A doctor’s education and training gives them authority to speak on a subject that they have specialized knowledge of. When a doctor runs tests and diagnoses you with a disease, you tend to trust them because of their legitimate authority. However, authority as specialized knowledge, in a consulting capacity, is different than authoritative power OVER others. This is discussed in great detail in the literature on Parecon (participatory economics), where it is acknowledged that we need experts to weigh in on relevant subjects, such as ecologists who have the ability to assess our impact on local ecosystems, and allow a combination of experts and members of the public to make informed decisions. Asserting that we need to abolish illegitimate forms of authority is not the same as saying that all forms of organization and all institutions are bad. This is a common misconception that is mostly found among those who have NEVER READ THE LITERATURE.

    And then there is this, which I think pretty well sums up how the author arrived at her oh-so-informed opinions:

    “[Wholesale anarchism] is implicitly vanguardist, I think, appealing chiefly to (especially male segments of) a precariat of relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth…”

    I get the feeling that the author has coined the term “neo-anarchism” to describe a subset of young, mostly male, antagonists who made their presence known at Occupy demonstrations. I find it downright insulting as a professional woman that the author seems to be equating that small group with the anarchist movement as a whole. What she is describing is the angst-ridden teenager’s limited view of anarchism, NOT anarchist theory. This entire piece comes across as uninformed opinion that hides behind lofty rhetoric and exclusive language, as if language alone can somehow add legitimacy to the opinion of someone who seems to have no direct experience with the subject at hand.

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  • L. R. Diaz

    Why so many anti-academic sentiments? Why come to post, at an academic-sponsored site to an academic, to complain about academics and their theories? Seems a fruitless exercise to me.

  • L. R. Diaz

    I have for a long time now been unable to abide anarchism. To me, it is a useless and selfish effort that in fact negatively impacts collaborations across social groups, which is the real engine of change as far as I’m concerned. Mobilizing jointly and building consensus for changing social structures is what brings about actual outcomes that can improve everyone’s lives (rather than those of selective groups of adherents to particular ideologies). Anarchism has no objectives and offers no long-term strategy except some “Utopic” alternative like small-scale communities that are “self-governing.” That sort of “solution” just doesn’t work in this historical or social context. I’ve never understood its appeal and resent the attention anarchism as a strategy gets, particularly as elements like labour organizing and the rest, seem to get less respect or are received with less enthusiasm, as my experience tells me (from participating in labour movements and more traditional actions).

    I do not follow discussions on anarchism so I may be well behind the times, but this is the first time I’ve actually read someone pointing out that there is no long-term plan behind vanguardist movements like anarchism — whether “neo” or not. I’m glad to see someone say it.

    I am not trying to be disrespectful of the choice ideology of some whom I’m sure are here as dedicated anarchists. I am also not trying to be provocative. The internet has a way of setting people off. I am expressing my low opinion of this ideology mostly to air my complaints about it because I’ve been frustrated with recent movements that are mostly sound and fury and signify next to nothing. Anarchist blocks in these contemporary mobilizations are at the top of my list of frustrations with “new” social movements. Marxist organizing and Marxism as an ideology for change has been quite productive so I am always baffled at how much excitement anarchism has received in comparison to a waning interest in labour movements and “old school” civil rights-styled social movements. And I appreciate that the reason why I have such an aversion for anarchism is my own commitment to Marxism, but I simply don’t get the interest in anything anarchistic. And its employment of neoliberal jargon like rhetoric around “responsibility” and such, simply further troubles me and leaves me scratching my head.

    If anyone cares to tell me more about why anarchism appeals to her/him, I’d love to read it. But please, no abusive or dismissive responses. I’m also tired of those. Thanks!

    • Will

      Why don’t you try actually reading some books or websites about anarchism instead of demanding individual tutoring? If you don’t want dismissive responses try posting something thoughtful with a little knowledge behind it. If you don’t want “abusive” responses then don’t troll. “Building bridges” with Marxist academics by debating in a comment section is not going to be anyone’s idea of fruitful political activity. You are not entitled to any special attention.

      • L. R. Diaz

        Yeah, just as I thought. Angry responses with no substance. Way to further your cause.

        I was hoping to have a conversation because that is more helpful than just me reading books on my own and thinking I have all the answers. So much for civil dialogue these days with people who think they have all the answers and others are beneath them.

        I am not trolling. I am an alum at NSSR looking for real discussions. Good day to you, sir.

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  • Exiled Arizona

    Could someone republish this piece but replace anarchism and anarchist with marxism and marxist? Bonus points if you do it under the pen name “Fancy N’raser”

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  • Archie Meijer

    How is “anarchism” as described by anarchists really anarchist?

    Some anarchists say they want small-scale communities that are self-governing. OK, what makes such communities nongovernments? I assume there will be people in these communities who will get together, discuss things, and take action, even if it means using force.

    How is that different from a government? What defines something as a “government” versus not counting as a government?

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