Back to anarchism? Nancy Fraser argues against ‘neo-anarchism’


On the Public Seminar website, Nancy Fraser has recently offered a preliminary set of coordinates for critiquing certain trends in contemporary anti-capitalist thinking. She describes these trends as a kind of ‘neo-anarchism’ which has become particularly popular in movements such as anti-globalisation movements, Occupy and waves of student occupations. She describes some of the characteristics of this resurgence of anarchist thinking:

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.

Fraser praises their energy, but is also suspicious of some of the moves that they make and suggests that in some of their anti-institutional pronouncements they ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater.’ This is what Fraser has to say, for example, about their view of representation:

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.

More detailed, however, is Fraser’s critique of their take on public sphere theory, which she suggests that they rethink in sometimes less than useful ways. She argues, for example that,

Aiming to counter the hierarchical logic of administrative rule, it [neo-anarchism] 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.

Fraser takes the reader through their arguments but is unconvinced by their suggestion that an adequate praxis and relation to the ‘public sphere’ is complete removal from the ‘institutions of global governance’. According to the neo-anarchists:

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.

Despite sounding, however, ‘breathtakingly radical’ and altering ‘the deep grammar of public sphere theory’, the theory is not as ground-shattering as it purports to be. Fraser gives a sketch of public sphere theory, which ‘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.’ Anarchism, instead, rejects this bisected public sphere, and ‘implies an entirely different model, premised on a single-track understanding of democratic politics.’

Fraser, however, believes that ‘a democracy without formal political institutions is conceptually incoherent.’ She argues,

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?

Fraser’s stance thus engages with long-standing debates about representation which have taken place between anarchists and other trends on the left. Fraser believes that ‘the distinction between publics and institutions is not so easily dispensed with.’ She justifies this view by arguing that anarchist tactics do not so easily function to fight against existing structures; what she calls for, instead, is a democratization of the existing structures and a use of “withdrawal” in tandem with other tactics:

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. … Better to fight to democratize, than to abolish, the institutions that regulate transnational interaction in a globalizing world. Better, too, to adopt … “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.