Rethinking Public Sphere

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Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy Nancy Fraser Social Text, No. 25/26. (1990), pp. 56-80. Stable URL: Social Text is currently published by Duke University Press.

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Rethinking the Public Sphere:
A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing



Today in the U.S. we hear a great deal of ballyhoo about "the triumph of liberal democracy" and even "the end of history." Yet there is still a great deal to object to in our own "actually existing democracy," and the project of a critical social theory of the limits of democracy in late capitalist societies remains as relevant as ever. In fact, this project seems to me to hzve acquired a new urgency at a time when "liberal democracy" is being touted as the ne plus ultra of social systems for countries that are emerging from Soviet-style state socialism, Latin American military dictatorships, and southern African regimes of racial domination. Those of us who remain committed to theorizing the limits of democracy in late capitalist societies will find in the work of Jiirgen Habermas an indispensable resource. I mean the concept of "the public sphere," originally elaborated in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and subsequently resituated but never abandoned in his later work.' The political and theoretical importance of this idea is easy to explain. Habermas's concept of the public sphere provides a way of circumventing some confusions that have plagued progressive social movements and the political theories associated with them. Take, for example, the longstanding failure in the dominant wing of the socialist and Marxist tradition to appreciate the full force of the distinction between the apparatuses of the state, on the one hand, and public arenas of citizen discourse and association, on the other. All too often it was assumed in this tradition that to subject the economy to the control of the socialist state was to subject it to the control of the socialist citizenry. Of course that was not so. But the conflation of the state apparatus with the public sphere of discourse and association provided ballast to processes whereby the socialist vision became institutionalized in an authoritarian statist form instead of in a participatory democratic form. The result has been to jeopardize the very idea of socialist democracy. A second problem, albeit one that has so far been much less historically momentous and certainly less tragic, is a confusion one encounters at 56

Nancy Fraser


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