Building the Transnational Public Sphere – An Interview with Nancy Fraser

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Published
29.09.2021
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23 min read
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Transnationalist Theories, Contemporary Struggles
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Niccolò Milanese: You are one of the leading theorists trying to develop Habermas’ model of the public sphere, originally developed by Habermas with reference to the 18th and early 19th centuries. You have argued that in order to make this public sphere theory operational for contemporary politics, we need to rethink its basic premises, both institutional and normative. What are the crucial basic premises of a new transnational theory of the public sphere?

Nancy Fraser: I start with a couple of assumptions. First of all, there is no question that the flow of public discourse, argument, critique making today does not respect borders, it definitely is transnational in all kind of ways. I also start with the idea of a two track notion of politics: one track of which is civil society, in which this kind of public sphere argument and discourse belongs; but the other track is an institutional track, where you have public powers which are authorised at the end of debate, at least at the provisional end of debate – after hearing all the arguments and counterarguments – to make decisions and to implement them. Now, what made the idea of the public sphere – as originally developed by Jurgen Habermas – so fruitful and so interesting, was precisely the tacit assumption that Habermas and all the critics including myself made, that the arena in which public opinion circulated and in which it could gather political force was a territorial state - a bounded national community – and that meant that there was in place both of those tracks of politics that you need: you already had in place a national state which was assumed to have sovereign capacity within its territory, and then you had civil society. The problem for philosophers was how to ensure that public opinion in civil society was genuinely fair in the sense of accessible and open to everyone: how to deal with relatively disempowered segments of the nation that didn’t have full access to the public sphere, whether it was women, or working class people, or racialised people, the poor.... That was the question of access, and you could say of the legitimacy of public opinion. The second problem, within that original national frame, was the problem of efficacy, namely, how to ensure that the opinion mobilised in civil society could actually have the power - if not exactly constrain at least powerfully influence the constituted institutionalised powers. What you don’t want is a situation where all of civil society was of the opinion that the state was corrupt and nothing changes: public opinion should actually have real political force. 

If you assume a nation state, a bounded territorial state, then it’s pretty clear what the problem is with public opinion, how to make sure that public opinion is legitimate, in the sense of open to all, and how to make sure it is efficacious vis a vis the state. That is all very neat on paper, but today public opinion is quite transnational, and at the same time we also have various transnational administrative powers that operate, and we also have a huge set of transnational problems, whether we are talking about the environment or public health – major epidemics – or just the financial crisis alone – problems that really require concerted action of public powers to solve – they can’t be solved by single states acting alone. However, what we lack is precisely this idea that the original public sphere theory had that there is a correlation between the scale of public opinion on the one side and the scale of public powers that can in principle solve problems and to whom public opinion is addressed on the other. 

Let me give you two examples of a mismatch between the scale of public opinion on the one hand and the scale of public institutions on the other. These are two equal and opposite problems. One is the case where you have administrative powers that are at a transnational scale – constituted powers – but you don’t have comparable transnational public sphere, where civil society opinion can genuinely form and mobilise. I think you can say this is the case with the European Union today where you have a Brussels administrative apparatus, you have a parliament which is becoming more empowered, is strengthening its institutional capacity, but you don’t really have a European-wide public-sphere, debate is still national. We saw that in the French ‘no’ vote for example, which was driven largely by domestic national considerations rather than European considerations, for both the ‘for’ campaign and the ‘against’ campaign. That is a case where the scale of institutional power is outstripping public opinion: public opinion is not transnational enough to hold that power accountable. There is also the opposite case, the world-wide demonstrations of February 15 2003 against the impending US invasion of Iraq. You could not have asked for a more clear global outpouring of public sentiment, that was the culmination of tremendous flows of communication and argument in the preceding months. So there you had something like a really transnational – even global – public sphere develop, but what did it accomplish? Absolutely nothing – a few weeks later Bush ordered the troops and tanks into Iraq. So there is a case where there was not a public institutional power that had the capacity at the transnational level to translate public opinion into actual policy. So Bush felt free to simply ignore it: there was nothing to constrain him. So that is the opposite case where opinion outstrips the scale of powerful institutions, and you could find many more examples of both types. So my thought is until we really come to grips with this kind of miss-match, and figure out how to address it, how to overcome it, the theory of the public sphere no longer has the same critical force that it had in an earlier time when it seemed possible that we could think of this in terms of the national frame (although perhaps we were mistaken, in retrospect).

What is the role of the philosopher in the ‘major institutional renovation’ of the public sphere you call for? Should philosophers be rethinking the premises of a critical theory of the public sphere to critique the actions of public powers, or should we be actively engaged in forming the institutions, the political institutions that are necessary for that to even make any sense?

Well, there are several aspects to your question, one is the relation between theory and practice. Theorists as such are not directly involved in doing anything other than theorising, but no one is only a theorist, people wear different hats, they theorise in the morning and do political activism in the afternoon. The kind of critical theory that interests me shows me that one side of the problem is an institutional deficit. We lack accountable public powers to take and implement decisions on a transnational scale, powers that could be a counterpart to transnational public opinion. Public opinion itself is a force in civil society, it doesn’t act in the sense of acting and taking decisions, and one wouldn’t want it to: it is an oppositional force, it is a force for democratic accountability, but if it doesn’t have any institutions to address itself to, it is sort of like the sound of one hand clapping. So, theory reveals an institutional deficit. There are theorists who actually try to do the job of institutional design; I don’t see myself usually as doing that kind of theory. I’m more into the diagnostic dimension. Publications like yours play an important role as a hinge between more or less expert spheres of opinion and broader publics and audiences.

In the March issue of The Myth of Europa, Stefan Collignon – in discussing what would be an appropriate response to the financial crisis, - says that the appeal to the lack of a European public sphere is becoming the argument of choice for conservatives who are opposed to European integration, or to Europe taking a further role. You can see what he means in some of the recent phenomena in many European countries, where for example when banks have been more or less re-nationalised and people have insisted that for the banks to be accountable they should only lend money nationally, and there have been similar arguments made about jobs and migration. I wonder how you respond to that sort of conservative appropriation of the public sphere theory?

Of course there are all sorts of ways in which conservative argument, as with any kind of argument, can be rather opportunistic and seize on this argument as an excuse for arguing against that and so on. It is true that there is not a genuine European public sphere. The first knee-jerk reaction everywhere, not just in Europe, to the kind of crisis that we are facing now is a kind of populist, protectionist nationalism. So here is a case where theorists and activists and others need to forcefully make the case that that is not a solution, that you cannot solve the problem by a nationalist protectionist strategy. We’ll all go down together, we’ve seen that before: there is ample historical evidence for it. So it is true that there is not a European public sphere, but it is also true that the financial crisis will, whatever immediate stimulus can be given here or there, or whatever way you can buy time by infusing capital into banks to prevent a domino effect leading to collapse, you won’t have any lasting and secure solution until you develop and create democratically accountable transnational – in some cases even global – institutions with the capacity to regulate markets, banking, finance. There is no serious solution without that. It seems to me that this would be another case where there is a deficit at both ends at the same time: the public opinion is not adequately scaled up, but the institutions aren’t there either. That is what makes this process so difficult. Normally, the process of democratisation works when there are institutions that exist, and then publics and social movements clamour to democratise them. So first you get monarchies, and then you get republics, right? Now our situation is a situation where we don’t have the global transnational public powers – we have to build them and democratize them at the same time. We have some powers like the IMF and the WTO and so on, and those we need to democratise for sure, but other powers don’t even exist.

With regards to the powers that do already exist, it seems like the very many levels of global governance is one of the ways that those in power use to avoid accountability and publicity, so to speak. So what is an appropriate strategy of trying to pin-them-down or to establish a level at which we’re going to pin a public sphere. Is the appropriate way to latch onto global meetings – such as NATO or the G20 to choose two upcoming examples - , but then what about after those meetings?

This is one job for critical theory: to map the real flows of power - where are decisions made and by whom? They are often made behind closed doors, by powers that do not have any public face, that are quasi-private powers. So one thing we need to do is to map the real power flows. Then the second task is to think about the scale of the problems – are they national problems? are they regional problems? are they global problems? – and to work out what the scale of actual governance is for those problems, and then to think about constituting publics on that scale to address those powers, those problems, and then, as I say, where the powers don’t exist to begin the work of creating them. What renders the whole thing coherent, is not an easy question: it is a question of institutional design.

Let’s move on to your thoughts about justice. You have written about the popular theme of ‘recognition’ in political theory, and how this should be understood. How do you understand the category of recognition?

Above and beyond identifying with another person, the notion of recognition as it is used today has a thicker normative power which involves treating the other person as an interaction partner. For me recognition is not about identity. We need to recover another sense to what we mean by the ‘politics of recognition’. It does not have to mean – it should not mean – trying to increase the esteem of my group based on its supposedly specific characteristics; that is what I have called ‘affirmative politics of recognition’. But I think a much better way to understand it is in terms of status. If you think back to Max Weber you can say that the politics of distribution and redistribution is a response to subordination and stratification in terms of class, where the issue is resources and whether or not people are adequately resourced to really participate fully in interactions as peers. Then there is another question: even if people have enough resources, do they suffer from discrimination, are they subject to a kind of institutionalised stigma, or status injuries or asymmetries that also prevent them from interacting as full members of society? That is what I mean by the ‘injustice of misrecognition’, which is every bit as serious, every bit as material as injustices of mal-distribution. So for me recognition is a question of whether the norms and values and social meanings that are institutionalised – not free floating in people’s heads, but actually entrenched in social institutions and regulate social interactions – do those norms, those recognition patters, afford the possibility of equal status to everybody? So I think a great deal of the politics of recognition, where it is justified, should be understood as the effort to combat forms of status inequality and status subordination, whether we are talking about women, racialised immigrants, minorities, religious minorities etc etc. To me this is every bit as central to modern politics as distribution and issues of class inequality. In fact what is complicated about it is that these are two orders of subordination, of injustice, of inequality, which exist in modern societies, but not in two separate spheres – they are thoroughly intra-imbricated with one another. So I don’t believe you could ever overcome virtually any serious injustice without combating at the same time the injustices of mal-distribution and the injustices of mal-recognition. So I think that recognition politics is always part of political struggle, the question is how explicit and does it place this status-equality issue at the forefront or does it get off the track in identitarian variants that are problematic.

When you talk about status injustice, presumably for that to make sense there must be quite a strong notion of justice beyond that. What is that notion of justice?

I have a very demanding notion of justice. It is this idea of parity of participation, that it is not enough to have formally equal rights, or formally equal opportunities, and it is not even enough to have the exact equality of resources or primary goods if that were even possible, what you really want are social arrangements that do not entrench systematic institutionalised obstacles to parity of participation. So justice for me is about dismantling obstacles to parity that are institutionalised in unjust social arrangements. If you ask me how do I justify this rather demanding, radical democratic interpretation of justice, I will say that it is a radical democratic interpretation of precisely that famous norm of equal respect for all human beings, and equal autonomy of all human beings. The point is that everybody is for that, at least within the liberal tradition, but there is a huge amount of debate as to exactly what it means. I give a very demanding interpretation of that, if you settle for something less, you have not got justice. Equal respect just means parity of participation. 

There is also an historical argument, and here I follow the British sociologist TH Marshall who tells an interesting story about the unfolding of citizenship as an increasingly thick, demanding status which eventually comes to involve social citizenship as well as civic and political citizenship: there is something right about that story even if the order is not always the one that Marshall chose. My thought is that our notions of equality or equal respect have become historically thicker, more demanding and broader, in the sense of applying in more and more spheres of life. So you can say that equal respect originally had quite a narrow meaning in the sense of equal access to the courts and freedom of conscience in the sphere of religion, then at a certain point we get the idea that it also requires a political voice, the expansion of the franchise, then we get economic rights with social democracy, then with feminism it has to apply in the sphere of the family too, not just the marketplace ... This story shows how the norm of equal respect or equality comes to apply in more and more spheres, and the burden of argument shifts – it now behoves those who think that it shouldn’t apply in such and such a sphere to show why not.

At the same time it has become less formal, more substantive, more demanding. So to take Marshall’s famous example, it is not enough to say that in theory everyone has the right to sue in a court of law: if you can’t afford a lawyer we’ll provide you with one. That is the material dimension, so with the career open to talents for example, at a certain point it became clear that that meant the right to free public education. From a feminist point of view, you could say it becomes the right to a fair sharing of domestic labour if you really want a career open to talents. These are all examples of how the meaning of equality becomes more and more substantialised, more and more demanding. A way of summing up this long story is to say that increasingly what we mean by equality today is precisely the absence of obstacles to parity of participation. There is an historical argument that that is what parity is meant to mean.

It isn’t clear to me exactly what you mean by participation in your analysis of equality as ‘parity of participation’. Participate in what? Do you mean it in Arendt’s sense of the importance of positive freedom in taking part in the public sphere?

I don’t mean ‘participation’ with any republican ideological overtones that participation per se is the good. I mean it in a more negative sense. Participate in what? Precisely. Participate in whatever are the main arenas of social interactions that exist in any given time that are important in social life. This is not something I want to give a list of once and for all as a closed idea. Participate in what? Is an historically unfolding, evolving affair. Societies historically diffenciate, they generate new arenas of participation, they pluralise. One kind of participation is participation in critical reflection about whether other things are even worth participating in, so there is a kind of meta-participation. So for me participation is not a substantive idea of the good life. It is more the robust sense that human sociality is about interaction and it is wrong and unjust for society to institutionalise arrangements that prevent some people from interacting at all in some arenas or that force them into interacting as a subordinate in certain social arenas. This is not to say that I think that everyone is somehow required to participate in everything. It is really about the dis-institutionalisation of obstacles. If people have the possibility to participate in x, y and z and choose not to that is their choice – I am a liberal in that sense, as opposed to a republican. I would defend the right of adults to withdraw – like the Amish for example – the difficult problem in cases like that is the children and withdrawing them from school: they don’t get the capacities they would need later if as adults they choose to re-enter. But those are familiar problems. 

Mine is a liberal deontological theory, as opposed to a republican theory – it is about the right and not the good. Participation for me is a synonym for interaction. My view belongs to the family of capabilities theories, just like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, although unlike Nussbaum I’m not giving a list of capabilities or a list of participation arenas, for me that is historically open-ended, and unlike Sen I’m not focussed on capabilities for individual functionings, I’m interested in interactions and hence on the terms on which individuals relate, and not on the whether I as an individual can do x, y and z.

Isn’t there a danger that by putting the emphasis of your critical theory on ‘removing obstacles’ it sounds like you have quite a laissez-faire attitude to the historical process? You have commented in some of your writings on the phenomenon that the political right seems increasingly to be able to dominate ideological argument, and you associate that phenomenon with a decline in utopian thinking on the left. 

I think this goes back to your theory versus practice question. As a theorist of justice, which is to say of injustice, I am interested in diagnosing the forms, structures and mechanisms of injustice in our society, and – to the degree I can – helping to create language, concepts, arguments that social movements – who I see as the real actors here – might be able to put to use in trying to ameliorate social injustice. But I do agree that social movements have another side – that is that they project what we can call an ‘utopian imaginary’ of a better life, and that is not exhausted by notions of justice and fairness, and it has a qualitative character to it. That is a strength, it can also go bad and become authoritarian. As a theorist I don’t see myself as having the job of articulating that. But I want to keep an eye on it, I want to warn when I think it might be going bad, when it might interfere with fighting social injustice, when it might become an obstacle for that.

You are interviewing me here at the GSPM and I’ve been very interested in the work of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello on the new spirit of capitalism and how utopias get somehow reappropriated by capitalism. This problem is very much on my mind.

I do agree with you that if we think of justice purely in procedural terms of fairness then this is too thin to really motivate and inspire. So the question is how do we see it connecting up with other elements of a utopian imaginary?

Let me ask you about one of the terms that may or may not be used by social movements, and that is the term of ‘feminist’. You are often described as a feminist, and I have the sense that you have no problem with the term. However there are those who seem to see the term as a barrier, many who were part of the feminist movement in the 70s who now are no longer happy to see themselves described in that way. I wonder what you have to say about the idea that the term might be problematic.

What you say interests me a lot, because my intuition runs in a different direction, and maybe this is just because I’m coming from the States. I see with feminism the opposite problem in the sense that everyone is a feminist now. People like me who have felt long identified with feminism as a social movement aimed at combating injustices along the gender line find that this is a word that we don’t controlled any more. We find that Sarah Palin can be described as a ‘feminist’ – the Christian Right is self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ today. This is very interesting, it is a new phenomenon – 5 years ago they would have ranted and railed against ‘femi-nazis’ and this kind of stuff. I have the impression that feminist ideas have become very broadly disseminated, and have become part of common sense. In terms of Christian fundamentalists in the US they are all ‘feminists’ now, but what does that mean? And what does that have to do with the social movement that I was part of decades? 

I have tried to explore this recently by adapting an argument of Boltanski and Chiapello which they used in a different way. They talk about how the ‘artistic critique’ of May 68 was recuperated and resignified as a legitimation of neoliberalism. I think that is only half the story. That story only works if you only see half of neoliberalism – let’s call it the male half: google, silicon valley etc etc. But neoliberalism is also, centrally, about Wall-mart about microcredit. That is the so-called woman’s half of neoliberalism. And neoliberalism is fundamentally about the massive entry of women into paid work all over the global. Heretical as it may sound, I think that feminism is part of the new spirit of capitalism, that it has become an ideology that legitimates neoliberalism. If you think about what gives a kind of ethical meaning to the daily struggles to these women in the workforce – at both ends of the spectrum, whether it is the professional cadres trying to crack the glass ceiling, or the temps, the part-timers etc etc – the idea of a certain kind of a new sense of dignity for women, I think this is a big part of the new spirit. I think this poses a huge problem for feminists in the narrow sense like me. I think that feminists like me are constantly facing a kind of uncanny double, whether it has the face of Sarah Palin or Hilary Clinton or Segolene Royal, or the feminist face of microcredit, which is complicated in that it is about about the replacement of macro attempts to fight inequality – which is patently inadequate , however good it might be in some sense. I think the problem is that everyone is a feminist now, and it is a term like ‘democracy’, what Ernesto Laclau would call an ‘empty signifier’ that can be used for any purpose, including purposes which run directly counter to what used to a straightforward social movement for gender justice.

If it is the case that the feminist cause has been hijacked by the right how should the feminist respond to that?

I think it is a sign of a certain kind success. I guess it is not a unique experience...

The environmental movement for example?

Yes, and this takes us back to our earlier discussion about the public sphere – anything that gets a certain amount of currency and circulation and diffusion in the public sphere becomes available to be articulated to this political project or that political project. Then you have something like a struggle for hegemony. Is feminism going to be something on the left, is it going to be on the right? We never had this problem before – the fact we have it is testimony to kind of success. 

Let me come back to the crisis: this is a moment, I think, of a kind of tremendous opportunity. I described the recuperation of feminism as a discourse by neoliberalism, and you could say that there was a first moment of the second wave of feminism, which was before the neoliberals, which was the critique of what you could call state organised capitalism, and feminist ideas that were deeply radical and transformative took on a different valence in the neoliberal context – the critique of the family wage, which was a radical move in the context of quasi-fordist state organised capitalism, but in the context of neoliberalism, boy! it is much more ambivalent, because it now gets twisted into the two-earner family, which in reality means many more hours worked per household for little money. So the recuperation of feminism in neoliberalism is the second moment. Right now we’re in the moment of the crisis of neoliberalism, which means that all of these questions are open, on the table and up for grabs once again. Earlier I wrote about how the politics of redistribution had been eclipsed by the politics of recognition in the identity sense. Now I would say that issues of redistribution and even of capitalism are back on the agenda front and centre. I think this is a moment where feminists in the original sense like me can try to reactivate the radical emancipatory qualities of feminism and break the spurious links between the critique of the family wage and marketisation, between the critique of welfare state paternalism and the evacuation of the welfare state. I don’t want to give you blueprint, but I see this as a moment in which a certain strategic alliance between feminism and neoliberalism could be broken up. Feminism could reassert its critique of capitalism’s androcentrism. It is a moment, for example, when the whole question of place of wage labour in society can be opened again. How to think about what role wage labour should play in our form of life – here are your utopian questions again – and what is its relation to care and other forms of participation.

You mentioned Ernesto Laclau, who with Chantal Mouffe developed a theory whereby to break away a cause like feminism from the discourse of the right it should be joined together with a whole series of other social causes in an hegemonic relation. Is that the kind of approach you are advocating?

I don’t see feminism as a kind of equivalent to other movements, nor do I see it as a minoritarian movement, that is about getting for women their fair share. It is that too, but I want to put the stress on something else – I think the most profound aspect of feminism is its critique of androcentrism, and in the context of a capitalism society that means above all the centrality of wage labour. I think it is about the work-care relationship, and we can add politics and other spheres of interaction. I think it could be a fundamentally transformative vision about how to think about exactly what it means to participate in society. I am also for linking gender justice to struggles for racial justice and so on, and in fact I don’t believe any of these struggles can fully triumph without them all coming together, so in that sense of course I understand the intersections of these things. But I would insist on the transformative dimension, as opposed to the minoritarian dimension.

We’re in a time of crisis as you’ve said. There seem to be very few alternatives being proposed by public intellectuals or anyone else, if you compare it to earlier crises in the 20th century for example. I wonder what your diagnosis is for this slightly depressing state of affairs?

I think it is very early in the crisis. If you think back to the 1930s, it took quite a long time before a real left emerged and became self confident and develop a culture and a discourse that was generating ideas. We are however facing an historically new situation, and that is the collapse of socialism tied to the collapse of communism. It is true that until ’89 there did seem to be an alternative to capitalism, and I think everyone is rightly much more agnostic about that now. I wouldn’t want to say that we know that there is no alternative to capitalism, but what is clear is that the pictures we had before of what that alternative might be like were much too simple and possibly unworkable. On the one hand there is a big question mark about political economy – what would the political economy of a just society look like ; on the other hand, both feminism and environmentalism are powerful world-pictures which are now available, and it seems to me that those are both good starting points and ... well, we all have to get cracking thinking about these things. To come back to the public sphere and publications like yours: places where social movement activists and theorists can communicate, places where ideas about alternatives or diagnoses can circulate can find discussion – that is exactly what we need now.

About the contributors

Nancy Fraser
Philosopher, Critical Theorist & Feminist

Nancy Fraser is an American philosopher, critical theorist, feminist, and the Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science and professor of philosophy at The New School in New York City. Widely known for her critique of identity politics and her philosophical work on the concept of justice, Fraser is also a staunch critic of contemporary liberal feminism and its abandonment of social justice issues. Fraser holds honorary doctoral degrees from four universities in three countries, and won the 2010 Alfred Schutz Prize in Social Philosophy from the American Philosophical Association. She is President of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division.

Niccolò Milanese
Co-Founder & Director, European Alternatives

Niccolò is a philosopher and poet. He is a director of European Alternatives, and co-author of "Citizens of Nowhere: How to save Europe from itself" telling the story of 10 years of activism throughout Europe. He is trustee of ECIT Foundation for European Citizenship in Brussels. Between 2018-20 he was a Marie Curie visiting fellow at PUC-Rio De Janeiro and UNAM Mexico. He is part of the advisory board of the NECE network of civic educators, and has been involved in establishing civil society, cultural and political organisations on each side of the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings.