Notes on Fraser, N (2000) Rethinking Recognition. New Left Review 3, May June: 107 –120

Dave Harris

[Good and overdue criticism of identity politics as sectarian etc, but her alternative seems pretty idealistic. If only we could generate really solidarity around themes like exclusions and denial of participation! A more promising cause is the old marxist cause of denial of  humanity?]

The recognition of difference seemed to be emancipatory, asserting hitherto denied identities and bringing a lateral dimension to struggles over wealth and power. However, there is now a different charge and struggles have led to 'ethnic cleansing and even genocide'. Claims for the recognition of difference now drive many of the social conflicts, campaigns for national sovereignty, subnational autonomy, battles around multiculturalism, movements for international human rights which include struggles for cultural distinctiveness. They have become a major theme within feminism replacing the former concern for redistribution of resources. They now display a wide range of aspirations from the 'patently emancipatory to the downright reprehensible'. Why do so many conflicts take this form, and 'cache their claims in the idiom of recognition' (107), especially given the decline in claims for egalitarian redistribution.

Demands for an equitable share of resources and wealth have not entirely disappeared, but there is a sustained neoliberal assault on egalitarianism, the absence of any credible model of 'feasible socialism' and doubts about the viability of state Keynesianism social democracy in the face of globalisation, hence a new grammar of political claims–making. But this is worrying, because it is occurring because of an acceleration of globalisation, and aggressively expanding capitalism which is exacerbating economic inequality, so that questions of recognition are marginalising and displacing redistributive struggles — 'the problem of displacement' (108), and cultural forms are being hybridised and paralysed by transcultural interaction and communication, accelerated migration and global media flows — but respectful interaction between multicultural contexts is not developing, and instead group identities are being simplified and reified, and encourage 'separatism, intolerance and chauvinism, patriarchal-ism and authoritarianism — 'the problem of reification'.

Both problems are very serious and can actually promote economic inequality reifiying group identities, sanctioning violations of human rights and freezing antagonisms. Unsurprisingly many wash their hands of identity politics or cultural struggles, sometimes by reprioritising class over gender sexuality race and ethnicity. Sometimes economism has been resurrected. Some have rejected all minoritarian claims and insisted on majority norms 'in the name of secularism, universalism or republicanism'.

But these reactions are also misguided, because not all recognition politics is pernicious some is still emancipatory, addressing injustices that cannot be remedied by redistribution alone. Culture is a necessary terrain of struggle, a site of injustice deeply connected with economic equality, and struggles for recognition can help the redistribution of power and wealth. Everything depends on how recognition is approached and the politics of recognition thought out. Struggles for recognition must be integrated with struggles for redistribution rather than displacing or undermining them. There should be a full complexity of social identities, not one that promotes reification and separatism.

The usual approach — 'the "identity model"' starts on the idea that identities are constructed dialogically through mutual recognition [she says it's hegelian but it looks like the social mirror stuff of social interaction] — ideally each sees the other as its equal but separate, and one becomes an individual subject only by recognising and being recognised by another subject, so recognition of others becomes essential to a sense of self, and being misrecognised is to invite distortion of a relation to oneself and injury.

Transposed onto the cultural and political terrain, the argument is that if groups to which one belongs are devalued by the dominant culture or misrecognised, this can produce an equal distortion to the self, that repeated stigmatisation means an internalisation of negative self images and an unhealthy cultural identity. The politics of recognition tries to repair this internal self dislocation by contesting the dominant culture's demeaning picture and promoting new self-representations, a new self-affirming culture which will be publicly asserted — leading to recognition, 'an undistorted relation to oneself' (110).

This can help recognise some of the psychological effects of racism, sexism, colonisation and cultural imperialism, but there are problems in that group identities are reified, and redistribution displaced. The latter arises because the identity model is largely silent on economic inequality, often with an exclusive focus on efforts to change culture. Even if there is an attention to maldistribution, it can still be displaced.

In the first case, demeaning representations are not seen as socially grounded, but a free-floating discourses, not institutionalised. Misrecognition is abstracted from its institutional matrix and from distributive injustice, for example the links in labour markets between androcentric norms and the low wages of female workers, or heterosexist norms which deemed legitimate homosexuality, and the denial of resources and benefits to gays and lesbians [such as? -- she specifies insurance below]. Misrecognition is not connected to social structural underpinnings.

In the second case cultural injustices are linked to economic ones but the character of these links are misunderstood — maldistribution is a secondary effect of misrecognition, economic inequalities are expressions of cultural hierarchies, class oppression is a superstructural effect of cultural devaluation, so that maldistribution can be remedied by a politics of recognition. This is a simple reversal of vulgar Marxism — 'vulgar culturalism' (111). It might make more sense if there were no relatively autonomous markets [autonomous from cultural value patterns], a purely cultural society as in some early anthropology, but it is the opposite in most cases because 'marketisation has pervaded all societies to some degree, at least partially decoupling economic mechanisms of distribution from cultural patterns of value and prestige'. Markets have a logic of their own and can generate economic inequalities that do not just reflect identity hierarchies [sometimes that's a good thing of course].

Identity tends to be reified especially if the aim is to display some 'authentic, self affirming and self generated collective identity… [which]… puts moral pressure on individual members to conform to a given group culture' (112). This encourages conformity and discourages cultural criticism 'including efforts to explore intragroup divisions'. We end up with a 'single, drastically simplified group identity which denies the complexity of people's lives, the multiplicity of their identifications and the cross pulls of their various affiliations' [the effects of intersectionality which CRT hastily denied or disowned]. This leads, ironically to misrecognition, especially of the struggles within the group 'for the authority — and the power — to represent it… The power of dominant fractions'. We end with repressive forms of communitarianism, often patriarchalism.

After assuming that identity was dialogical and emphasising interactions with others, the approach ends by 'valorising monologism' — 'supposing that misrecognised people can and should construct their identity on their own… That a group has the right to be understood solely in its own terms — that no one is ever justified in viewing another subject from an external perspective or in dissenting from another self interpretation'. This makes cultural identity 'an auto generated auto description, which one presents to others as an obiter dictum' (112-3). Authentic self representations are thus made exempt from all possible challenges, but at the price of fostering social interaction across differences. Separatism and group enclaves are the result.

So this model is flawed, theoretically deficient and politically problematic, encouraging reification and displacement of the politics of redistribution.

There is an alternative approach, treating recognition 'as a question of social status', where recognition is 'not group specific identity but the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction' (113). Misrecognition means social subordination, 'being prevented from participating as a peer in social life', and a politics aimed at overcoming subordination 'by establishing the misrecognised party as a full member of society, capable of participating on a par with the rest'.

Institutionalised patterns of cultural values should be seen as having effects on the relative standing of social actors. If they constitute actors as peers, participating on a par with one another, we can talk about reciprocal recognition and status equality [and the converse]. Misrecognition is not a psychic deformation, not a cultural harm, but 'an institutionalised relation of social subordination'. The misrecognised are not just thought inferior, looked down upon, or devalued, but 'denied the status of a full partner in social interaction' as a result of institutionalised patterns that have made them 'comparatively unworthy of respect or esteem' (114).

Misrecognition is relayed through institutionalised patterns not cultural representations or discourses, social institutions that regulate interaction — marriage laws, for example, social welfare policies, policing practices, all of which constitute some categories of social actors as normative in others as deficient or inferior. Some members of society are denied the status of full partners in interaction.

We find such 'parity impeding values' in a number of sites and in 'qualitatively different modes'. (114) Misrecognition can be codified in formal law, government policies, administrative codes of professional practice, or can be informally institutionalised in associational patterns, customs or sedimented social practice. In each case, there is institutionalised subordination and thus injustice, and a claim for recognition is appropriate — but one aimed at 'overcoming subordination'rather than 'valorising group identity', establishing the subordinated party as a full partner. This will require social institutions to change, specifically the values that regulate interaction that impede parity of participation. This should be done differently depending on the mode in which institutionalisation takes place — legal change, policy change and so on.

As an example, marriage laws that deny participation parity to gays and lesbians should have that value pattern deinstitutionalised and replaced with an alternative that promotes parity. There are various options — the same recognition of gay and lesbian unions, legalising same-sex marriage, de-institutionalising heterosexual marriage, decoupling entitlements like insurance for heterosexual marriage and assigning them on some other basis and so on.

There is no commitment to any particular type of remedy. It may be necessary to acknowledge distinctiveness, or to focus on dominant or advantaged groups where their distinctiveness 'has been falsely parading as universal' (115), or to deconstruct the very terms which attribute differences. The remedy must be adjusted to the concrete arrangements. Approaches that valorise group specificity should not be granted privilege — we should be after universalist recognition and 'the affirmative recognition of difference' (116), and not stop at identity but go on to institutional remedies.

Institutionalised patterns of cultural value are not the only obstacles to parity. Some actors will lack the necessary resources to interact as peers, so maldistribution is an impediment. This should be seen as 'an analytically distinct dimension', involving the allocation of disposable resources to social actors. [ A note says there may be more distinct dimensions, such as specifying political obstacles to parity, decision-making procedures that systematically marginalised some people, such as 'single district winner take all electoral rules that deny voice to quasi-permanent minorities, or political marginalisation and exclusion, which she says she owes to Weber's third dimensional stratification, party].

Recognition corresponds to the status order of society, cultural value, status groups, honour, prestige and esteem, but distributive dimensions correspond to the economic structure of society, property regimes and labour markets, economic actors or classes, and each has 'an analytically distinct form of injustice'. For the first one, the associated injustice is misrecognition, for the second maldistribution. There are also analytically distinct forms of subordination — status subordination and economic subordination.

The status model puts the problem of recognition within a larger social frame [a Weberian one,  she says, although  a note says she also accepts the capitalist mode of production as a social totality, an overarching frame within which one can situate weberian understandings 117]. Both forms are 'interimbricated' (118), not wholly reducible to the other, although the economic dimension can become relatively decoupled if market areas are strongly differentiated — economic distribution becomes partially uncoupled from structures of prestige, so cultural value patterns do not strictly dictate economic allocations, nor do class inequalities reflect status hierarchies. Apart from anything else this means that not all distributive injustice can be overcome by recognition [and it also ignores the reformist capabilities of capitalism where the market pushes equalities between say ethnic and gender groups 'ahead' of cultural change].

The status approach has a [better] subtext — economic issues have recognition subtexts where value patterns originally institutionalising labour markets can privilege activities such as those that are called masculine or white, while recognition issues such as judgements of aesthetic values can have distributive implications, where diminished access to economic resources impedes equal participation in the production of art. Misrecognition becomes part of a broader understanding of inequality in contemporary society and cannot be understood in isolation from economic arrangements. Recognition cannot be abstracted from distribution. Redressing injustice involves tracing the links between status and economic class, rather than displacing struggles for redistribution and seeing misrecognition as some freestanding cultural matter.

Status models also avoid reifying group identities by focusing on 'the status of individuals as full partners in social interaction' [not as individualised as it sounds, perhaps because the real interest is on 'institutionalised norms and capacities for interaction']. (119). There is no fixed notion of culture, no displacement onto identity engineering when the real interest should be social change, no valorisation of existing group identities with its danger of essentialism and the foreclosing of historical change. Further, this model 'submits claims for recognition to the democratic processes of public justification, thus avoiding the authoritarian ... knowledges of the politics of authenticity and valorising transcultural interaction, as opposed to separatism and group enclaves'.

The struggles for recognition too often assume the guise of identity politics, but they abstract misrecognition from its institutional matrix, sever links with political economy, and by propounding authentic identities, prevent interaction across differences and enforce 'separatism conformism and intolerance'. The unfortunate results tend to be that they 'displace struggles for economic justice and promote repressive forms of communitarianism'. We should not reject the politics of recognition entirely, because it does help millions of people fight some sort of injustice. What we need instead is 'an alternative politics of recognition', a 'non-identitarian politics that can remedy misrecognition without encouraging displacement and reification' (120) — her status model, with its connections to economic class.