Nancy Fraser: Subaltern Counterpublics

Key Concept

Kirchner’s Weinstube

Subaltern counterpublics are discursive arenas that develop in parallel to the official public spheres and “where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”.1Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, in Craig J Calhoun, Habermas And The Public Sphere (MIT Press 1992), 123 Nancy Fraser, coining the term from Gayatri Spivak’s “subaltern”2Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Gary Nelson and Larry Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (University of Illinois Press 1988) 271 and Rita Felski’s “counterpublic”,3Rita Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics (Harvard University Press 1989) argues that counterpublics are formed as a response to the exclusions of the dominant publics and that their existence better promotes the ideal of participatory parity.

Fraser, in her influential essay “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, starts off by highlighting the importance and indispensability of Jürgen Habermas’s concept of public sphere in critical social theory and democratic practice. Habermas traces the structural transformation of the public sphere in early modern Europe in the formation of a “bourgeois public sphere”, which, mediating between society and the state, would hold the latter accountable by means of publicity. The bourgeois public sphere is conceptualized as a theatre in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk and which, through its openness and its accessibility, would lead to the formation of public opinion and ideally consensus about the common good.   Recapitulating the revisionist historiography, according to which Habermas’s account is highly idealized, Fraser highlights the argument that the official public sphere not only rested upon, but was constituted by significant exclusions. These exclusions referred mostly to women and to the non-proprietary male working class. Fraser goes on to cite Mary Ryan’s study,4Mary P Ryan, Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (John Hopkins University Press 1990) according to which these excluded groups tried to form competing counterpublics: These included woman-only voluntary associations, working-class publics, popular peasant publics, etc. This means that there never was one single, unitary public and instead the public sphere was always composed of conflictual and antagonistic publics.

Fraser locates an initially unbridgeable gap between the public sphere as an ideal that was never fully realized, but still retains emancipatory potential, and the Gramscian in spirit critique that the bourgeois public sphere is nothing but an instrument in the formation of a hegemony that translates forms of political domination. This is a political domination that takes the form of consent to a constructed common sense, which is derived precisely by the proliferation of discourses that normalize and naturalize the existing order. Instead of taking sides in this dilemma, Fraser opts to concentrate her criticism on certain premises of the Habermasian conceptualization of the public sphere.

This revisionist historiography calls into question the assumption that the public sphere, as described by Habermas, allows for interlocutors to deliberate as if they were social equals, meaning that societal equality is not a necessary condition for political democracy.5Fraser (n 1) 117 This liberal conceptualisation of the public sphere rests on bracketing social inequalities in deliberation, to the benefit of an abstract political equality. However, this stance, insofar as it means proceeding as if social inequalities do not exist when they do, works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates.6Fraser (n 1)  120 This approaches Michel Foucault’s argument that power relations can never be fully dissolved and therefore the idea that transparent communication can perform such a task is only a utopia.7James William Bernauer and David M Rasmussen (eds), The Final Foucault (MIT Press 1988) 18. This comes in sharp contrast to the liberal perspective on democracy, which is premised on the possibility to organize a democratic form of political life “on the basis of socioeconomic and sociosexual structures that generate systemic inequalities.”8Fraser (n 1) In order to materialize this democratic ideal, liberal democracy searches for ways to insulate political processes from societal factors of inequality. However, according to Fraser, these efforts will never be sufficient as a necessary condition for participatory parity is that systemic social inequality be eliminated.9Ibid

The subaltern counterpublics are formed as a response to the exclusions undertaken by the dominant forms of deliberation. These counterpublics can function both as spaces of withdrawal and as bases for antagonistic politics with wider publics. Hence the positive value of counterpublics: Due to their publicist orientation, they widen the field of discursive contestation, meaning they bring to the fore issues that might have been overlooked, purposely ignored, or suppressed by dominant publics. This conclusion challenges another assumption of the Habermasian conceptualisation, namely that one public is preferable to a nexus of multiple publics. However, Fraser is quick to point out that the widening of discursive contestation does not mean that subaltern counterpublics are necessarily virtuous: On the contrary, they can often be antidemocratic and antiegalitarian. In the contemporary political context, an example could be the rise of the political far-right, which managed to permeate subaltern counterpublics that have been forming among those excluded, for reasons of limited resources and influence, from the shaping of the political life and the governance of their communities. Articulating a discourse centred on class-related marginalisation from the decision-making process, on a supposed re-empowerment of the ‘people’ against the ‘establishment’, on xenophobia and a restrictive conception of community, the far-right took advantage of the structural exclusions of liberal democracies and managed to mobilise subaltern counterpublics towards a populistic and antiegalitarian direction.

Fraser also contends that public spheres, contrary to the bourgeois conception, do not function solely as arenas of discursive contestation; further than this, they are the background for formation and enactment of social identities. Focusing on the discursive character of social identities and distancing herself from the Lacanian psychoanalytic approaches, Fraser sees identity-formation as an element of participation. Public spheres are not “spaces of zero-degree culture”;10Fraser (n 1)  120 they outline and frame a specific cultural setting, where some utterances and expressions are appropriate and others are not. Therefore, in an imagined egalitarian and multicultural society, public life could not be contained in a single and comprehensive public sphere, but it would need a plethora of publics in order to express the spectrum of its differences. Furthermore, seeing as people can participate in more than one public, membership in different publics allows for intercultural communication as individuals receive and are shaped by different influences.

The notion of subaltern counterpublics is useful in the critique of the dominant strand in democratic theory, that of deliberative democracy. To the extent that deliberative democrats believe “in a norm of political (not economic) equality”,11Cass R Sunstein, ‘Deliberation, democracy and disagreement’  in Ron Bontekoe and Marietta Stepaniants (eds) Justice and Democracy: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (University of Hawai’i Press 1997) 94 counterpublics will always come as a reminder that these forms of political equality are limited, insofar as they exclude segments of the population from the deliberative process. Besides, Fraser shows that in stratified societies, counterpublics are bound to emerge as it is impossible to insulate discursive arenas from societal inequalities.

Furthermore, the Habermasian model of deliberative democracy stresses the importance of informal deliberations taking place in the public sphere as the vehicle for the legitimacy of norms. These informal deliberations create communicative power that is translated into administrative power via the means of legislation. This unitary and harmonious representation of the public sphere that conceals the existence of counterpublics and antagonistic forms of expression fails to account for the empirical ascertainment of an institutional and legitimacy crisis that is expressed, among others things, through the rise of the far-right and its supposedly anti-systemic speech. The lack of participatory parity that, as Fraser points out, is an unavoidable consequence of societies whose framework generates structural inequalities is at the root of contemporary political crises. Deliberative democracy, to the extent that its critical angle is blunted and instead of a reformist project, entailing both institutional, and distributional considerations, becomes a theorization of current forms of governance, normalising regimes of oppression, can provide cover for subtle expressions of power inequalities.

Subaltern counterpublics challenge the supposed inclusiveness of the informal deliberations of opinion- and will-formation, wherefrom legitimacy is derived according to the deliberative paradigm. They bring up the question of power and indicate that the legitimising for the production of norms deliberation takes place in a hegemonic discourse, which is a product of structural inequality.12Iris M. Young, ‘Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy’ in James S. Fishkin and Peter Laslett (eds) Debating Deliberative Democracy (Wiley-Blackwell 2003) 108-115 However, apart from its value as an analytical tool, the notion of subaltern counterpublics is also connected with the potential for hypothetically egalitarian societies to combine social equality, cultural diversity, and participatory democracy.

Ioannis Kampourakis is a PhD candidate in Law at Freie Universität

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