15 February 2010

Article: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy

Nancy Fraser's article "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy" was published in the contributed volume "Habermas and the Public Sphere", ed. Craig Calhoun (MIT Press, 1992: pp. 109-42).

The article can be found (and partly read) at this link:


Some excerpts: "Today in the United States we hear a great deal of ballyhoo about 'the triumph of liberal democracy' and even 'the end of history.' Yet there is still quite a lot to object to in our own actually existing democracy, and the project of a critical theory of the limits of democracy in late-capitalist societies remains as relevant as ever. In fact, this project seems to me to have acquired a new urgency at a time when 'liberal democracy' is being touted as the ne plus ultra of social systems [...].

"[Jürgen] Habermas's idea of the public sphere is indispensable to critical social theory and democratic political practice. I assume that no attempt to understand the limits of actually existing late-capitalist democracy can succeed without in some way or another making use of it. I assume that the same goes for urgently needed constructive efforts to project alternative models of democracy. [...] According to Habermas, the idea of a public sphere is that of a body of 'private persons' assembled to discuss matters of 'public concern' or 'common interest.' [...] The result of such discussion would be public opinion in the strong sense of a consensus about the common good. [...]

"[W]ith the emergence of welfare-state mass democracy, society and the state became mutually intertwined; publicity in the sense of critical scrutiny of the state gave way to public relations, mass-mediated staged displays and the manufacture and manipulation of public opinion. [...] I do not mean to suggest that subaltern counterpublics are always necessarily virtuous. Some of them, alas, are explicitly antidemocratic and antiegalitarian, and even those with democratic and egalitarian intentions are not always above practicing their own modes of informal exclusion and marginalization. Still, insofar as these counterpublics emerge in response to exclusions within dominant publics, they help expand discursive space. In principle, assumptions that were previously exempt from contestation will now have to be publicly argued out. [...]

"[M]y argument enjoins four corresponding tasks on the critical theory of actually existing democracy. First, this theory should render visible the ways in which social inequality taints deliberation within publics in late-capitalist societies. Second, it should show how inequality affects relations among publics in late-capitalist societies, how publics are differentially empowered or segmented, and how some are involuntarily enclaved and subordinated to others. Next, a critical theory should expose ways in which the labeling of some issues and interests as 'private' limits the range of problems, and of approaches to problems, that can be widely contested in contemporary societies. Finally, the theory should show how the overly weak character of some public spheres in late-capitalist societies denudes 'public opinion' of practical force.

"In all these ways the theory should expose the limits of the specific form of democracy we enjoy in late capitalist societies. Perhaps it can thereby help inspire us to try to push back those limits, while also cautioning people in other parts of the world against heeding the call to install them."

It appears that an earlier version of this article had been published previously in the journal "Social Text" (25/26, 1990: pp. 56-80), although I couldn't find an acknowledgement in the book. The text of the journal article (which differs somewhat from the version in the book) is available free of charge here:


Nancy Fraser is Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the New School for Social Research.

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