Equality, Identity and Social Justice

“Recognition” has become a keyword of our time. Hegel’s old figure of “the struggle for recognition” finds new purchase as a rapidly globalizing capitalism accelerates transcultural contacts, fracturing interpretative schemata, pluralizing value horizons, and politicizing identities and differences. Demands for ‘recognition of difference’ fuel struggles of groups mobilized under the banners of nationality, “race”-ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. In these ‘post-socialist’ conflicts, group identity supplants class interest as the chief vehicle of political mobilization. Cultural domination supplants exploitation as the fundamental injustice. And cultural recognition displaces socioeconomic redistribution as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle.

How should we evaluate this shift “from redistribution to recognition”? Is the focus on recognition a counterproductive diversion from the real economic issues, one that balkanizes groups and rejects universalist moral norms? Or does it represent a salutary corrective to the culture-blindness of a materialist paradigm that reinforced domination by falsely universalizing the value horizons of dominant groups?

At first sight, we seem to be confronted here with two incompatible views of injustice. One view highlights socioeconomic inequities, rooted in the political-economic structure of society. Injustices like these, such as exploitation and poverty, arise when economic arrangements deprive some members of society of the material resources they need to participate fully, on a par with others, in social life. The other view stresses cultural or symbolic injustices, rooted in social patterns of representation, interpretation, and communication. These inequities, such as cultural domination, non-recognition, and disrespect, arise when institutionalized patterns of cultural value stigmatize subordinated groups, depriving them of standing as full partners in social interaction.

Properly understood, the redistribution/recognition contrast is not an incompatibility, but an analytical distinction. Conceptually distinct and mutually irreducible, economic and cultural injustices are entwined with one another in social reality. Cultural norms that are unfairly biased against some are institutionalized in the state and the economy, thereby skewing distribution of material resources. At the same time, economic disadvantage impedes equal participation in the making of culture, in public spheres and in everyday life. In actuality, therefore, the two types of injustice–maldistribution and misrecognition–reinforce one another dialectically.

Analytically, however, the two paradigms diverge in important respects. According to the redistribution paradigm, the remedy for injustice is political-economic restructuring–whether by redistributing income, reorganizing the division of labor, subjecting investment to democratic decision-making, or transforming other basic economic structures. Although these remedies differ from one another, they can be grouped together under the generic term redistribution. For the recognition paradigm, in contrast, redressing injustice requires cultural or symbolic change–whether by upwardly revaluing disrespected identities and the cultural products of maligned groups, or by recognizing and positively valorizing cultural diversity, or more radically, by transforming institutionalized patterns of cultural value in ways that would change everyone’s self-understanding. Although these remedies, too, diverge from one another, they can be grouped together under the rubric of recognition in contrast to that of redistribution.

The two paradigms also differ in their respective views of the groups that suffer injustice. In the redistribution framework, the collective subjects of injustice are classes or class-like collectivities, which are defined economically by a distinctive relation to the market or the means of production. The classic case in the Marxian paradigm is the exploited working class, but the conception can cover other cases as well, such as racialized groups of immigrants or ethnic minorities. From the recognition perspective, in contrast, the victims of injustice resemble Weberian status groups, defined not by the relations of production, but rather by the relations of recognition. Associated chiefly with low-status ethnic groups, this conception too can apply more broadly–for example, to homosexuals and to women, whose contributions and ascribed traits are devalued by dominant patterns of cultural value.

These conceptual differences between redistribution and recognition often find expression in political tensions. Typically, recognition claims call attention to, if they do not performatively create, the putative specificity of some group, whose value they proceed to affirm. Thus, they tend to promote group differentiation. Redistribution claims, in contrast, often aim to abolish economic arrangements that underpin group specificity–witness socialist demands to abolish classes and feminist demands to dismantle the gender division of labor. Thus, they are likely to promote group de-differentiation. The upshot is that the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution appear to have mutually contradictory aims. If the first tends to promote group differentiation, and the second tends to undermine it, then the two kinds of claim stand in tension with each other. They can interfere with, or work against, one another.

In light of these tensions, how can we best understand social justice in the current conjuncture? Should we favor redistribution, rejecting ‘minoritarian’ claims, demanding assimilation to majority norms, and prioritizing class struggle—in the name of secularism, universalism or republicanism? Or should we prefer recognition, jettisoning distributive politics as outmoded, difference-blind, and incapable of assuring justice for minorities and women?

If neither of those options is defensible, we might try to develop a third approach: allying what remains unsurpassable in the socialist vision with the best, “post-socialist,” insights of multiculturalism. To advance such a “both/and” strategy, I suggest we distinguish between affirmative and transformative strategies. Affirmative approaches aim to correct inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the fundamental structures that generate them. Transformative strategies, in contrast, would redress injustice precisely by restructuring the deep generative framework. Whereas the first approach attacks surface symptoms, the second targets root causes.

Affirmative remedies for distributive injustice have been associated historically with the liberal welfare state. Seeking to redress end-state maldistribution, they would increase the consumption share of economically disadvantaged groups, without disturbing the deep structures of the political economy. Transformative remedies, in contrast, have been historically associated with socialism. Seeking to prevent maldistribution from the get-go, they would transform the relations of production, altering the division of labor and conditions of existence for everyone.

An example can clarify this distinction. In the United States, efforts to combat racialized poverty have typically taken the form of public assistance and affirmative action, both of which count as affirmative forms of redistribution. The first provides paltry material aid without addressing the root causes of deprivation, while the second aims to assure fair access to existing jobs and educational places without macroeconomic change. Because both policies fail to attack the deep sources of disadvantage, they ensure that surface reallocations must be made again and again. The result is to mark the most disadvantaged class as inherently deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time, such a class can even come to appear privileged, the recipient of special treatment and undeserved largesse. Thus, an approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can end up creating or exacerbating injustices of recognition.

This problem can be avoided by switching from affirmation to transformation. Transformative efforts to remedy economic injustice typically combine universalist social programs, steeply progressive taxation, macroeconomic policies aimed at creating full employment, a large non-market public sector, significant public and/or collective ownership, and democratic decision-making about basic socioeconomic priorities. Aiming to provide jobs for all, while de-linking basic consumption shares from employment, these strategies reduce social inequality without creating stigmatized classes of vulnerable people perceived as beneficiaries of special largesse. Effectively undermining class differentiation, they tend to generate social solidarity. Thus, an approach that begins by targeting injustices of distribution can also help to remedy certain injustices of recognition.

Officially, of course, both affirmative redistribution and transformative redistribution presuppose universalist views of recognition, centered on the equal moral worth of persons. But in practice they generate different logics of group differentiation. Whereas the first undermines its professed universalism, the second tends rather to realize it.

If transformation is best for redistribution, is it also preferable for recognition? Affirmative remedies for cultural injustices are currently associated with mainstream multiculturalism. This approach proposes to redress disrespect by revaluing unjustly devalued group identities, while leaving intact both the contents of those identities and the group differentiations that underlie them. Transformative remedies, by contrast, are currently associated with deconstruction. They would overcome misrecognition by transforming underlying patterns of cultural value. By destabilizing existing group identities and differentiations, these remedies would not only raise the self-esteem of members of currently disrespected groups. Beyond that, they would change everyone’s sense of belonging, affiliation, and self.

The case of “despised sexualities” illustrates the point. Affirmative remedies for homophobia and heterosexism are currently associated with gay identity politics, which aims to revalue LGBT identities. Transformative remedies, in contrast, are exemplified by queer politics, which would deconstruct the homo-hetero dichotomy. Assuming an identitarian view of recognition, the first approach politics treats gay identity as a culture, endowed with particular contents, much like ethnicity. Dismantling false heterosexist self-images, it aims to build, publically display, and eventually win widespread respect for a “genuine” homosexual culture. Reinforcing an authentic gay identity, this approach assimilates the politics of recognition to identity politics. As a result, it tends to naturalize, even essentialize, group identity.

Here, too, the trouble can be avoided by shifting from affirmation to transformation. Queer politics treats homosexuality, not as a positive identity, but as the constructed and devalued correlate of heterosexuality. In its view, both “orientations” are reifications of sexual ambiguity, co-defined only in virtue of one another. The transformative objective is, accordingly, not to solidify a gay identity, but to dissolve all fixed sexual identities into a fluid field of multiple, ever-shifting differences.

In general, then, the affirmative approach of gay identity politics tends to enhance existing sexual group differentiation, much like the liberal welfare state’s affirmative politics of redistribution. In contrast, the transformative approach of queer politics tends to destabilize group divisions, just as socialism’s transformative politics of redistribution seeks to dismantle social classes. For both recognition and redistribution, then, transformation is preferable to affirmation.

Transformation has yet another advantage: far better than affirmation, it promotes efforts to link struggles for recognition with struggles for redistribution in a broader overarching political project. Recall that the identity approach treats misrecognition as a matter of free-floating prejudice, thereby occulting its structural-institutional underpinnings and its entwinement with maldistribution.  Many of its proponents ignore distributive injustice altogether and focus exclusively on efforts to change culture. Slighting structural considerations, they miss the links between, say, heterosexist norms institutionalized within social-welfare systems, on the one hand, and the denial of resources and benefits to homosexuals, on the other. Obfuscating such connections, they strip misrecognition of its institutional underpinnings and equate it with distorted identity. For them, economic inequalities are simple expressions of cultural hierarchies—thus, class oppression is a superstructural effect of the cultural devaluation of proletarian identity. In this way, culturalist proponents of identity politics simply reverse the claims of an earlier form of vulgar Marxist economism: they allow the politics of recognition to displace the politics of redistribution.

For these reasons, one should reject the identity model of recognition in favor of what I call “the status model.” In the status model, misrecognition is neither a psychic deformation nor a free-standing cultural harm but an institutionalized relation of social subordination. What requires recognition, therefore, is not group-specific identity but rather the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction. Status equality, not authentic identity, is the political objective. This focus on overcoming institutionalized subordination makes it possible to connect transformative struggles for recognition with transformative struggles for redistribution.

Here, in sum, is a framework that overcomes the redistribution/recognition divide. Linking those two dimensions of justice, the approach I propose would combine socialism in the economy with deconstruction in the culture. The result would be a politics of redistribution-cum-recognition, aimed at overcoming class inequality and status hierarchy simultaneously. Centered on removing both types of obstacles to participatory parity, it avoids not only old-fashioned vulgar economism but also new-fangled reductive culturalism. Defining the terrain of social justice as at once economic and cultural, the approach I propose offers a coherent political project encompassing both. Minimizing the tensions between redistribution and recognition, it can help us overcome their separation.



Nancy Fraser is Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, New School for Social Research as well as Einstein Visiting Fellow, Freie Universität-Berlin, and also holds the Global Justice Chair, Collège d’études mondiales, Paris.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1