Saturday, 9 April 2011

Nancy Fraser and transnational public spheres

Nancy Fraser makes an interesting attempt in her "Transnationalizing the Public Sphere" to conceive of a "transnational public sphere" in a way that preserves the normative force invested by Habermas in his original concept of the public sphere, which was tied to the nation-state. The paper exists in at least two versions, one from 2005 and one from 2007, with some interesting differences between them. Let me comment briefly on these differences.

Both papers take their point of departure in the same problem. Since Habermas' classical Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere from 1962, “public sphere theory has been implicitly informed by a Westphalian political imaginary: it has tacitly assumed the frame of a bounded political community with its own territorial state” (Fraser 2007:8). Implicitly, the concept of a public sphere has assumed the existence of a national citizenry, a modern state apparatus, a national communication infrastructure, a national language, and so on. So the problem is: “can the concept be reconstructed to suit a post-Westphalian frame?"

Fraser points out that this isn't as easy as it seems. As a normative idea the concept is dependent on two yardsticks: normative legitimacy and political efficacy. Without them, it would lose "its critical force and its political point" (ibid 7f). The problem is how to ensure legitimacy and efficacy under transnational conditions, without relying on the "Westphalian" nation-state infrastructure.

In the 2005 version of her paper, I found her to be surprisingly conservative, basically keeping all the central features of the Westphalian public sphere and hoping for their transnational expansion/extension. The weaknesses of this position seemed to be obvious. In claiming that the transnational public sphere depends on some form of super-Westphalian framework in order to have democratic potential, she was in effect condemning it to irrelevancy in practical politics. Denying the possibility of a public sphere before the establishment of transnational institutions, she also seemed to be leaving today's transnational social movements in a limbo, with no room for them to ground their claims to legitimacy. 
This position is modified in her 2007 paper. Here the argument is more intricate and the outcome more fruitful. To begin with, she revisits Habermas' classical work in order to assess two lines of criticism directed against it. Firstly, there was the "legitimacy critique" which focused on Habermas' neglect of the "systemic obstacles" that prevented subaltern groups in society - such as workers, women, the poor, or various minorities - from participating on a par with others in public debate. Her own 1991 essay, "Rethinking the Public Sphere", which highlighted the role played by "subaltern counter-publics" in challenging exclusions, is a well-known rendering of this line of criticism. Secondly, there was the "efficacy critique" that argued that Habermas had failed to register the full range of systemic obstacles that prevented communicatively generated popular will from being effectively implemented in state policy.
Both these lines of criticism, however, "took for granted the Westphalian framing of political space” (ibid 12) since they identified the public with the citizenry of a territorial state.

So can the two ideas of normative legitimacy and political efficacy can be detached from the Westphalian premises? She begins with legitimacy. The legitimacy of public opinion, she argues, rests on two conditions: inclusiveness and  parity. Discussion should not exclude anyone with a stake in the outcome, and all participants should enjoy equal chances to state their views and place issues on the agenda. In the Westphalian public, however, these two conditions were not always clearly distinguished.
Seen from the perspective of the Westphalian frame, both the inclusiveness condition and the parity condition were yoked together under the ideal of shared citizenship in a bounded community [...]. The effect, however, was to truncate discussions of legitimacy. Although it went unnoticed at the time, the Westphalian frame encouraged debate about the parity condition, while deflecting attention away from the inclusiveness condition. (ibid 20f)
Moving to a post-Westphalian stage could therefore increase the legitimacy of public opinion by stimulating discussion about inclusiveness. But how should the inclusiveness condition be understood in a post-Westphalian age? The answer is already provided by Habermas himself in the form of the "all-affected" principle, which holds that "all potentially affected by political decisions should have the chance to participate on terms of parity in the informal processes of opinion formation to which the decision-takers should be accountable" (ibid 21). This principle should hold true regardless of citizenship.
Henceforth, public opinion is legitimate if and only if it results from a communicative process in which all potentially affected can participate as peers, regardless of political citizenship. Demanding as it is, this new, post-Westphalian understanding of legitimacy constitutes a genuinely critical standard for evaluating existing forms of publicity in the present era. (ibid 22)
Next, she turns to the criterion of political efficacy. Efficacy too rests on two conditions: the "translation condition" according to which public opinion must be translated into binding laws and decisions, and the "capacity condition" according to which the political system must be able to implement these measures. Again, the Westphalian frame truncated discussions of efficacy, fostering interest in the translation condition but obscuring the capacity condition.

It is hard, however, to imagine how an efficacious transnational public should be understood since there is nothing corresponding to a territorial state that might possess the administrative capacity to implement the demands of a transnational citizenry. “The challenge, accordingly, is twofold: on the one, hand, to create new, transnational public powers; on the other, to make them accountable to new, transnational public spheres. Both those elements are necessary” (ibid 23). As Fraser admits, "the job is not easy". But "only if public sphere theory rises to the occasion can it serve as a critical theory in a post-Westphalian world” (ibid 24).

After having read her 2005 draft, I was agreably surprised by reading this. This is better. In the draft, she appeared to neglect social movements and instead called for institutional renovation in a rather strident voice, arguing that the idea of the public would lack critical force and political point without it. Here she “saves” the idea of the public without making it dependent on prior existence of global institutional structures. Instead, the emphasis is more on the public as a normative force that actually only comes fully into its own in the global age. Concerning both the legitimacy and the efficacy condition, Fraser manages to show that globalization can contribute - at least in part - to liberating the emancipatory potential of the public from its truncated form in the Westphalian age, when aspects of inclusion and capacity were obscured. Both these aspects are now highlighted thanks to the flows of people, the potential of decisions to affect people globally, and the weakening of individual states against the transnational power of capital.

The problem is thus no longer posed as how to reconstruct the Westphalian public on a global scale. While she is obviously still seeing the construction of some form of global institutional framework as an urgent task, she is also suggesting that the public might serve as an important transnational arena even in the absence of such a framework. She is no longer categorically saying that the idea of a transnational public sphere is not viable without transnational institutions (an assertion that would have been very tied to an “empirical” understanding of the public sphere as something really existing). Instead she approaches a position which may be rendered as follows: the idea of a transnational public sphere is viable as a normative guideline or yardstick, even in the absence of transnational institutions, just as the public functioned as a regulative ideal guiding criticism in the Westphalian age.

I do, however, have three reservations:

Firstly, alternative notions of public also exist. There is no shortage of reconceptualizations that emphasize the freedom and universality of “publics” far more open than "Westphalian" one. Take Karatani Kôjin, who even opposes the public to any bounded spaces and sees it as essentially located outside all national communities. Amino Yoshihiko's idea of muen is another example. Relying on such conceptualizations doesn’t mean jettisoning the normative content of the public sphere concept, since they are tied to their own very normative concepts of freedom.

Secondly, although I understand her desire to focus on the normative rather than the emprical components of the concept of the public sphere, I do believe her argument would have profited from paying greater attention to questions of what form the empirical existence of a transnational public sphere might take, or what forms it does take already today in those "global public sphere moments" (Eide and Kunelius) when it is temporarily realized. In her old 1991 article, her model was one of a central or mainstream public sphere (the “liberal bourgeois public sphere”) which was opposed by "subaltern counter-publics". This idea of one single center hardly holds if we are to picture a transnational public sphere. In such a transnational setting, subalterns or excluded groups will need to be able to form their own counter-publics in reaction to whatever public oppresses or excludes them, regardless of how "central" it is. Such a conception would allow for a plurality of “centers” in reaction to which a plurality of counter-publics can form. Interestingly, these alternative publics can today, more easily than before, take transnational form. That means that counter-publics will no longer necessarily be more local than the various “mainstreams” against which they are reacting. Interestingly, in her 1991 paper she raised the concern that the counter-publics might turn into parochial “enclaves”, and emphatically claimed that they always return to the mainstream public and expand it. Today, by contrast, the risk that counter-publics will turn into enclaves is probably smaller. In fact, often it is rather the national “mainstream” public spheres that become “enclaves” – closed, parochial and local. That might also mean that there is no longer the same burning necessity for the counter-publics to “return” to the mainstream. To at least some extent they can bypass it. So what I want to suggest is that the key to how a transnational public sphere might arise would lie not only in how the mainstream national public sphere can be made to expand, but also in how the counter-publics from different nations join together into transnational networks.

Thirdly, I am skeptical to her claim that "efficacy" is really essential for the idea of the public to have critical potential. "Legitimacy" appears to be a far more essential component, and as she notes herself, it is not in principle so difficult to construe legitimacy in transnational terms. In fact, a Habermasian framework would seem to demand it. I would therefore like to downplay the tendency in Fraser to portray the construction of transnational institutions as a task for critical theory. Take what is happening right now in North African and the Middle East - the coming into being of a beautiful and revolutionary transnational public sphere from Morocco to Syria. Surely, it would be ridiculous to claim that the critical potential of this public sphere would be enhanced by erecting some supranational governance framework with the "capacity" to respond to and implement the popular demands. Whatever "efficacy" this public has, it possesses because of the strength of its legitimacy and the weakness of the institutional orders opposing it. 

Social movements can certainly contribute to calling global institutions into being by holding politicians accountable and forcing them to act in order to take responsibility for global problems. I disagree, however, that the creation of such institutions per se is a central task for social movements. Their task is not to build those institutions, but to call them into being by their dissent. The pragmatic problem may remain concerning where best to apply pressure – on national levels, on corporations, on supranational organizations etc – but the guiding principle should simply be one of flexibility: hit the weakest link and act so that you will grow stronger, by gaining allies and supporters. Make the opponent and potential allies see that it is in their interest to work together with you. Here a measure of strategic reason is permitted. Transnational movements should not feel confined to addressing transnational institutions. Just as the old "national" movements would sometimes address local governments or companies and sometimes the national governments, transnational movements should feel free to choose their targets flexibly and pragmatically, according to their present needs - just as they are in fact doing today.

The criticial potential of the idea of the public stems above all from the "legitimacy" condition. "Efficacy" is a secondary quality, and a dangerous one. Building institutional "capacity" will also heighten the capacity of institutions to contain criticism and dissent. To build that capacity is not the task of the dissenters. To believe that the public sphere can only function critically if such capacity exists is a delusion, and arguing that dissent lacks force unless such capacity is first created is about as clever as teaching your opponent judo before you start attacking him. Capacity will come in time, as soon as protests make the established elites realize the need for containment. The public, however, gains its critical force by outrunning capacity. The public lives only as long as it is the seedbed of more demands than can be granted.

Habermas 1960 - still a Westphalian public sphere?


Fraser, Nancy (2005) “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere”, March.

Fraser, Nancy (2007) “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World”, Theory Culture & Society 24(4):7-30.


  1. Hey Carl,
    Just wanted to let you know that I just quoted this post in my phd thesis - your point that efficacy is secondary to legitimacy, to be precise. Besides restoring yet anoter bit of "critical edge" to critical theory as it relates to the transnational, it resolves a problem of circularity in Fraser's theory: she defines (per all-subjected principle) the scope of a public as all those individuals who are subjected to a certain government structure and then, under the banner of political efficacy, calls upon that thusly defined public to construct the very government structure that defines it's boundaries.
    Your way of conceptualizing capacity - as a double edged sword - helps to break this problem. Good stuff.

  2. Thanks, I'm flattered. Good luck with your thesis!


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