The following is a response to John S. Dryzek’s “Global Democratization: Soup, Society, or System?” in the Summer 2011 issue of Ethics & International Affairs.
As Nancy Fraser noted, it is “by no means clear what it means today to speak of ‘transnational public spheres’.” Two leading scholars of international political theory, James Bohman and John S. Dryzek, pursue research programs that aim at filling this gap. While Bohman develops his approach of transnational public spheres within a clearly Habermasian framework with the concepts of communicative action and communicative power at its center, Dryzek puts a strong emphasis on a more Foucaultian and social-constructivist concept of discourses. The competition of two rival conceptions of transnational public spheres has proved quite productive for international political theory during the last years. However, in his recent article in Ethics & International Affairs Dryzek has taken a turn that drives him in the direction of the Habermasian project and might deprive his account of much of its distinctiveness. While Dryzek’s new focus could indicate the advent of “normal science” in conceptualizing transnational public spheres (in the sense that now all major theories are developed within the same paradigm), it leads to inconsistencies within his theoretical framework.
In which sense is Dryzek taking the Habermasian road, then? In his article he constructs the image of a “deliberative system” (p. 225) featuring five elements: First, public space allowing for free communicative action; second, empowered space for the generation of authoritative collective outcomes; third, transmission between public space and empowered space which allows the former to affect the deliberations and decision-making within the latter; fourth, accountability of empowered space vis-à-vis public space; and fifth, meta-deliberation as a reflexive process of deliberating about the structures of the deliberative system itself. “These five elements,” Dryzek claims, “should ideally be decisive in producing collective decisions” (p. 226) in international politics.
This model seems to resemble the core features of the Habermasian framework for conceptualizing the interplay between public spheres and the political system. To begin with, the concepts of public and empowered space remind one of Fraser’s pertinent distinction between weak and strong publics, which is also invoked by Habermas in Between Facts and Norms. The crucial difference between the two types of publics lies in the fact that the latter has the competence to convert the results of its deliberations into collectively binding decisions while the former does not. Moreover, Dryzek’s ideas of transmission and accountability between public and empowered space strongly evoke the famous sluice model that Habermas adopts from Bernhard Peters to construct the interaction between weak and strong publics. The word “sluice” has an ambiguous meaning in German and the metaphor indicates two things about accountability and transmission. First, the need to filter out illegitimate public opinions at the entrance of the political system—the way security door systems at airports are meant to keep out unauthorized persons. Second, the need to channel legitimate public opinions from ordinary people all the way up to the powerful in the offices—similar to locks used to move boats between different water levels. The main mechanism to secure the latter function is elections, which put politicians under pressure to be responsive to public opinion. Finally, Dryzek’s notion of meta-deliberation addressing the structure of the deliberative system itself finds its counterpart in Habermas’s claim that the concrete features of a political system need to be defined by those affected themselves and in his view that “every constitution is a living project.”
One might argue that Dryzek’s Habermasian turn, away from the centrality of discourses and to the systemic-institutionalist conceptualization of politics, deprives his theory of much of its distinctiveness and signifies a loss of productive competition between paradigms. However, I interpret it as the beginning of “normal science” in the theory of transnational public spheres. With his subscription to the ideal of a systemic interplay between weak and strong publics, Dryzek has entered the Habermasian intra-paradigm discussion about creating formally institutionalized “transmission belt[s]” between civil society and international governance and making international politics accountable to transnational public spheres. Nevertheless, Dryzek’s introduction of elements of systemic and institutionalist thinking into his theory seems to create inconsistencies or, at least, open questions.
The trickiest issue results from the combination of the concept of an informal and diffuse discursive power with the idea of a formalized system. On the one hand, Dryzek adheres to the idea that discourses, “which are seen as both enabling and constraining action,” (p. 222) are mainly “conditioning collective outcomes” (p. 223) in international politics. On the other hand, he claims that legitimate international politics need to be conducted within a (more or less) institutionalized deliberative system that includes formal accountability mechanisms. What is determining politics, then? Is it discursive power or institutions? Admittedly, Dryzek postulates that a “systemic view does not imply any commitment to the building of formal institutions” (p. 232). But this can only be understood in the sense that thinking in systemic terms is possible without advocating the creation of new institutions. As Dryzek himself notes, the concept of empowered space only makes sense if it is applied to formal institutional bodies that hold decision-making powers, for example, “international governmental organizations, such as the World Trade Organization” (p. 227). His examples for transmission and accountability, like the consultation of NGOs by authoritative bodies, are also of a formal kind. While in earlier versions of his theory the powerful discourses themselves could be interpreted as the transmitter between public and empowered space, now there seem to be two competing ideas of how transnational publics could influence international governance—either informally, via the contestation or modification of discourses, or formally, via consultation procedures or other mechanisms. It remains unclear how these two dimensions relate to each other and how the contradictory description of both can be reconciled. Why, on the one hand, should we care about formal transmission procedures if outcomes are in the end determined by discourses formed outside the narrow framework of particular institutions? And why, on the other hand, should we devote any energy to the probably fruitless attempt of contesting hegemonic discourses if formal channels of political influence open up? If Dryzek intends to follow the Habermasian road and at the same time adhere to his concept of discourses, questions like these will have to be answered.
 Nancy Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 4 (2007), p. 8.