Nancy Fraser. Justice Interruptus. 1997

From Redistribution to Recognition?
Dilemmas of Justice in a “Postsocialist” Age


Source: Justice Interruptus. Nancy Fraser, Chapter 1;
Published: by Routledge 1997;
NB: the ideas outlined in this chapter of Justice Interruptus, are further developed in Nancy Fraser’s contribution to “Recognition or Redistribution,” Verso, 2003;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.


The “struggle for recognition” is fast becoming the paradigmatic form of political conflict in the late twentieth century. Demands for “recognition of difference” fuel struggles of groups mobilised under the banners of nationality, ethnicity, “race,” gender, and sexuality. In these “postsocialist” conflicts, group identity supplants class interest as the chief medium of political mobilisation. 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.

This is not, of course, the whole story. Struggles for recognition occur in a world of income and property ownership; in access to paid work, education, health care, and leisure time; but also, more starkly, in caloric intake and exposure to environmental toxicity, and hence in life expectancy and rates of morbidity and mortality. Material inequality is on the rise in most of the world’s countries — in the United States and in China, in Sweden and in India, in Russia and in Brazil. It is also increasing globally, most dramatically across the line that divides North from South.

How, then, should we view the eclipse of a socialist imaginary centred on terms such as “interest,” “exploitation,” and “redistribution"? And what should we make of the rise of a new political imaginary centred on notions of “identity,” “difference,” “cultural domination,” and “recognition"? Does this shift represent a lapse into “false consciousness"? Or does it, rather, redress the culture-blindness of a materialist paradigm rightfully discredited by the collapse of Soviet communism?

Neither of those two stances is adequate, in my view. Both are too wholesale and unnuanced. Instead of simply endorsing or rejecting all of identity politics simpliciter, we should see ourselves as presented with a new intellectual and practical task: that of developing a critical theory of recognition, one that identifies and defends only those versions of the cultural politics of difference that can be coherently combined with the social politics of equality.

In formulating this project, I assume that justice today requires both redistribution and recognition. And I propose to examine the relation between them. In part, this means figuring out how to conceptualise cultural recognition and social inequality in forms that support rather than undermine one another. (For there are many competing conceptions of both!) It also means theorising the ways in which economic disadvantage and cultural disrespect are currently entwined with and support one another. Then, too, it requires clarifying the political dilemmas that arise when we try to combat both those injustices simultaneously.

My larger aim is to connect two political problematics that are currently dissociated from each other, for only by integrating recognition and redistribution can we arrive at a framework that is adequate to the demands of our age. That, however, is far too much to take on here. In what follows, I shall consider only one aspect of the problem: Under what circumstances can a politics of recognition help support a politics of redistribution? And when is it more likely to undermine it? Which of the many varieties of identity politics best synergise with struggles for social equality? And which tend to interfere with the latter?

In addressing these questions, I shall focus on axes of injustice that are simultaneously cultural and socioeconomic, paradigmatically gender and “race.” (I shall not say much, in contrast, about ethnicity or nationality.) And I must enter one crucial preliminary caveat: in proposing to assess recognition claims from the standpoint of social equality, I assume that varieties of recognition politics that fail to respect human rights are unacceptable, even if they promote social equality.

Finally, a word about method. In what follows, I shall propose a set of analytical distinctions — for example, cultural injustices versus economic injustices, recognition versus redistribution. In the real world, of course, culture and political economy are always imbricated with each other, and virtually every struggle against injustice, when properly understood, implies demands for both redistribution and recognition. Nevertheless, for heuristic purposes, analytical distinctions are indispensable. Only by abstracting from

the complexities of the real world can we devise a conceptual schema that can illuminate it. Thus, by distinguishing redistribution and recognition analytically, and by exposing their distinctive logics, I aim to clarify — and begin to resolve — some of the central political dilemmas of our age.

My discussion in this chapter proceeds in four parts. In the first section, I conceptualise redistribution and recognition as two analytically distinct paradigms of justice, and I formulate “the redistribution-recognition dilemma.” In the second, I distinguish three ideal-typical modes of social collectivity in order to identify those vulnerable to the dilemma. In the third section, I distinguish between “affirmative” and “transformative” remedies for injustice, and I examine their respective logics of collectivity. I use these distinctions in the fourth section to propose a political strategy for integrating recognition claims with redistribution claims with a minimum of mutual interference.

The Redistribution-Recognition Dilemma

Let me begin by noting some complexities of contemporary “postsocialist” political life. With the decentring of class, diverse social movements are mobilised around crosscutting axes of difference. Contesting a range of injustices, their claims overlap and at times conflict. Demands for cultural change intermingle with demands for economic change, both within and among social movements. Increasingly, however, identity-based claims tend to predominate, as prospects for redistribution appear to recede. The result is a complex political field with little programmatic coherence.

To help clarify this situation and the political prospects it presents, I propose to distinguish two broadly conceived, analytically distinct understandings of injustice. The first is socioeconomic injustice which is rooted in the political-economic structure of society. Examples include exploitation (having the fruits of one’s labour appropriated for the benefit of others).economic marginalisation (being confined to undesirable or poorly paid work or being denied access to income-generating labour altogether), and deprivation (being denied an adequate material standard of living).

Egalitarian theorists have long sought to conceptualise the nature of these socioeconomic injustices. Their accounts include Marx’s theory of capitalist exploitation, John Rawls’s account of justice as fairness in the choice of principles governing the distribution of “primary goods,” Amartya Sen’s view that justice requires ensuring that people have equal “capabilities to function,” and Ronald Dworkin’s view that it requires “equality of resources.”

For my purposes here, however, we need not commit ourselves to any one particular theoretical account. We need only subscribe to a rough and general understanding of socioeconomic injustice informed by a commitment to egalitarianism.

The second understanding of injustice is cultural or symbolic. Here injustice is rooted in social patterns of representation, interpretation, and communication. Examples include cultural domination (being subjected to patterns of interpretation and communication that are associated with another culture and are alien and/or hostile to one’s own); nonrecognition (being rendered invisible by means of the authoritative representational, communicative, and interpretative practices of one’s culture); and disrespect (being routinely maligned or disparaged in stereotypic public cultural representations and/or in everyday life interactions).

Some political theorists have recently sought to conceptualise the nature of these cultural or symbolic injustices. Charles Taylor, for example, has drawn on Hegelian notions to argue that

nonrecognition or misrecognition ... can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, reduced mode of being. Beyond simple lack of respect, it can inflict a grievous wound, saddling people with crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy but a vital human need.

Likewise, Axel Honneth has argued that

we owe our integrity ... to the receipt of approval or recognition from other persons. [Negative concepts such as “insult” or “degradation"] are related to forms of disrespect, to the denial of recognition. [They] are used to characterise a form of behaviour that does not represent an injustice solely because it constrains the subjects in their freedom for action or does them harm. Rather, such behaviour is injurious because it impairs these persons in their positive understanding of self — an understanding acquired by intersubjective means.

Similar conceptions inform the work of many other critical theorists, including Iris Marion Young and Patricia J. Williams, who do not use the term ‘recognition.’ Once again, however, it is not necessary here to settle on a particular theoretical account. We need only subscribe to a general and rough understanding of cultural injustice, as distinct from socioeconomic injustice.

Despite the differences between them, both socioeconomic injustice and cultural injustice are pervasive in contemporary societies. Both are rooted in processes and practices that systematically disadvantage some groups of people vis--vis others. Both, consequently, should be remedied.

Of course, this distinction between economic injustice and cultural injustice is analytical. In practice, the two are intertwined. Even the most material economic institutions have a constitutive, irreducible cultural dimension; they are shot through with significations and norms. Conversely, even the most discursive cultural practices have a constitutive, irreducible political-economic dimension; they are underpinned by material supports. Thus, far from occupying two airtight separate spheres, economic injustice and cultural injustice are usually interimbricated so as to reinforce each other dialectically. Cultural norms that are unfairly biased against some are institutionalised in the state and the economy. meanwhile, economic disadvantage impedes equal participation in the making of culture, in public spheres and in everyday life. The result is often a vicious circle of cultural and economic subordination.

Despite these mutual entwinements, I shall continue to distinguish economic injustice and cultural injustice analytically. And I shall also distinguish two correspondingly distinct kinds of remedy. The remedy for economic injustice is political-economic restructuring of some sort. This might involve redistributing income, reorganising the division of labour, subjecting investment to democratic decision making, or transforming other basic economic structures. Although these various remedies differ importantly from one another, I shall henceforth refer to the whole group of them by the generic term “redistribution.” The remedy for cultural injustice, in contrast, is some sort of cultural or symbolic change. This could involve upwardly revaluing disrespected identities and the cultural products of maligned groups. It could also involve recognising and positively valorising cultural diversity. More radically still, it could involve the wholesale transformation of societal patterns of representation, interpretation, and communication in ways that would change everybody’s sense of self. Although these remedies differ importantly from one another, I shall henceforth refer to the whole group of them by the generic term “recognition.”

Once again, this distinction between redistributive remedies and recognition remedies is analytical. Redistributive remedies generally presuppose an underlying conception of recognition For example, some proponents of egalitarian socioeconomic redistribution ground their claims on the “equal moral worth of persons”; thus, they treat economic redistribution as an expression of recognition.” Conversely, recognition remedies sometimes presuppose an underlying conception of redistribution. For example, some proponents of multicultural recognition ground their claims on the imperative of a just distribution of the “primary good” of an “intact cultural structure”; they therefore treat cultural recognition as a species of redistribution. Such conceptual entwinements notwithstanding, however, I shall leave to one side questions such as, do redistribution and recognition constitute two distinct, irreducible, sui generis concepts of justice, or alternatively, can either one of them be reduced to the other?” Rather, I shall assume that however we account for it metatheoretically, it will be useful to maintain a working, first-order distinction between socioeconomic injustices and their remedies, on the one hand, and cultural injustices and their remedies, on the other.

With these distinctions in place, I can now pose the following questions: What is the relation between claims for recognition, aimed at remedying cultural injustice, and claims for redistribution, aimed at redressing economic injustice? And what sorts of mutual interferences can arise when both kinds of claims are made simultaneously?

There are good reasons to worry about such mutual interferences. Recognition claims often take the form of calling attention to, if not performatively creating, the putative specificity of some group and then of affirming its value. Thus, they tend to promote group differentiation. Redistribution claims, in contrast, often call for abolishing economic arrangements that underpin group specificity. (An example would be feminist demands to abolish the gender division of labour.) Thus, they tend to promote group dedifferentiation. The upshot is that the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution often appear to have mutually contradictory aims. Whereas the first tends to promote group differentiation, the second tends to undermine it. Thus, the two kinds of claim stand in tension with each other; they can interfere with, or even work against, each other.

Here, then, is a difficult dilemma. I shall henceforth call it the redistribution-recognition dilemma. People who are subject to both cultural injustice and economic injustice need both recognition and redistribution. They need both to claim and to deny their specificity. How, if at all, is this possible?

Before taking up this question, let us consider precisely who faces the recognition-redistribution dilemma.

Exploited Classes, Despised Sexualities, and Bivalent Collectivities

Imagine a conceptual spectrum of different kinds of social collectivities. At one extreme are modes of collectivity that fit the redistribution model of justice. At the other extreme are modes of collectivity that fit the recognition model. In between are cases that prove difficult because they fit both models of justice simultaneously.

Consider, first, the redistribution end of the spectrum. At this end let us posit an ideal-typical mode of collectivity whose existence is rooted wholly in the political economy. It will be differentiated as a collectivity, in other words, by virtue of the economic structure, as opposed to the cultural order, of society. Thus, any structural injustices its members suffer will be traceable ultimately to the political economy. The root of the injustice, as well as its core, will be socioeconomic maldistribution, and any attendant cultural injustices will derive ultimately from that economic root. At bottom, therefore, the required to redress the injustice will be political economic redistribution, as opposed to cultural recognition.

In the real world, to be sure, political economy and culture are mutually intertwined, as are injustices of distribution and recognition. Thus, we may question whether there exist any pure collectivities of this sort. For heuristic purposes, however, it is useful to examine their properties. To do so, let us consider a familiar example that can be interpreted as approximating the ideal type: the Marxian conception of the exploited class, understood in an orthodox way. And let us bracket the question of whether this view of class fits the actual historical collectivities that have struggled for justice in the real world in the name of the working class.

In the conception assumed here, class is a mode of social differentiation that is rooted in the political economic structure of society. A class exists as a collectivity only by virtue of its position in that structure and of its relation to other classes. Thus, the Marxian working class is the body of persons in a capitalist society who must sell their labour power under arrangements that authorise the capitalist class to appropriate surplus productivity for its private benefit. The injustice of these arrangements, moreover, is quintessentially a matter of distribution. In the capitalist scheme of social reproduction, the proletariat receives an unjustly large share of the burdens and an unjustly small share of the rewards. To be sure, its members also suffer serious cultural injustices, the “hidden (and not so hidden) injuries of class.” But far from being rooted directly in an autonomously unjust cultural structure, these derive from the political economy, as ideologies of class inferiority proliferate to justify exploitation. The remedy for the injustice, consequently, is redistribution, not recognition. Overcoming class exploitation requires restructuring the political economy so as to alter the class distribution of social burdens and social benefits.

In the Marxian conception, such restructuring takes the radical form of abolishing the class structure as such. The task of the proletariat, therefore, is not simply to cut itself a better deal but “ to abolish itself as a class.” The last thing it needs is recognition of its difference. On the contrary, the only way to remedy the injustice is to put the proletariat out of business as a group.

Now consider the other end of the conceptual spectrum. At this end we may posit an ideal-typical mode of collectivity that fits the recognition model of justice. A collectivity of this type is rooted wholly in culture, as opposed to in political economy. It is differentiated as a collectivity by virtue of the reigning social patterns of interpretation and evaluation, not by virtue of the division of labour. Thus, any structural injustices its members suffer will be traceable ultimately to the cultural-valuational structure. The root of the injustice, as well as its core, will be cultural misrecognition, while any attendant economic injustices will derive ultimately from that cultural root. At bottom, therefore, the remedy required to redress the injustice will be cultural recognition, as opposed to political-economic redistribution.

Once again, we may question whether there exist any pure collectivities of this sort, but it is useful to examine their properties for heuristic purposes. An example that can be interpreted as approximating the ideal type is the conception of a despised sexuality, understood in a specific way. Let us consider this conception, while leaving aside the question of whether this view of sexuality fits the actual historical homosexual collectivities that are struggling for justice in the real world.

Sexuality in this conception is a mode of social differentiation whose roots do not lie in the political economy because homosexuals are distributed throughout the entire class structure of capitalist society, occupy no distinctive position in the division of labour, and do not constitute an exploited class. Rather, their mode of collectivity is that of a despised sexuality, rooted in the cultural-valuational structure of society. From this perspective, the injustice they suffer is quintessentially a matter of recognition. Gays and lesbians suffer from heterosexism: the authoritative construction of norms that privilege heterosexuality. Along with this goes homophobia: the cultural devaluation of homosexuality. Their sexuality thus disparaged, homosexuals are subject to shaming, harassment, discrimination, and violence, while being denied legal rights and equal protections — all fundamentally denials of recognition. To be sure, gays and lesbians also suffer serious economic injustices; they can be summarily dismissed from paid work and are denied family-based social-welfare benefits. But far from being rooted directly in the economic structure, these derive instead from an unjust cultural-valuational structure. The remedy for the injustice, consequently, is recognition, not redistribution. Overcoming homophobia and heterosexism requires changing the cultural valuations (as well as their legal and practical expressions) that privilege heterosexuality, deny equal respect to gays and lesbians, and refuse to recognise homosexuality as a legitimate way of being sexual. It is to revalue a despised sexuality, to accord positive recognition to gay and lesbian sexual specificity.

Matters are thus fairly straightforward at the two extremes of our conceptual spectrum. When we deal with collectivities that approach the ideal type of the exploited working class, we face distributive injustices requiring redistributive remedies. When we deal with collectivities that approach the ideal type of the despised sexuality, in contrast, we face injustices of misrecognition requiring remedies of recognition. In the first case, the logic of the remedy is to put the group out of business as a group. In the second case, on the contrary, it is to valorise the group’s “groupness” by recognising its specificity.

Matters become murkier, however, once we move away from these extremes. When we consider collectivities located in the middle of the conceptual spectrum, we encounter hybrid modes that combine features of the exploited class with features of the despised sexuality. These collectivities are “bivalent.” They are differentiated as collectivities by virtue of both the political-economic structure and the cultural-valuational structure of society. When oppressed or subordinated, therefore, they suffer injustices that are traceable to both political economy and culture simultaneously. Bivalent collectivities, in sum, may suffer both socioeconomic maldistribution and cultural misrecognition in forms where neither of these injustices is an indirect effect of the other, but where both are primary and co-original. In that case, neither redistributive remedies alone nor recognition remedies alone will suffice. Bivalent collectivities need both.

Both gender and “race” are paradigmatic bivalent collectivities. Although each has peculiarities not shared by the other, both encompass political-economic dimensions and cultural-valuational dimensions. Gender and “race,” therefore, implicate both redistribution and recognition.

Gender, for example, has political-economic dimensions because it is a basic structuring principle of the political economy. On the one hand, gender structures the fundamental division between paid “productive” labour and unpaid “reproductive” and domestic labour, assigning women primary responsibility for the latter. On the other hand, gender also structures the division within paid labour between higher-paid, male-dominated, manufacturing and professional occupations and lower-paid, female-dominated “pink-collar” and domestic service occupations. The result is a political-economic structure that generates gender-specific modes of exploitation, marginalisation, and deprivation. This structure constitutes gender as a political differentiation endowed with certain classlike characteristics. When viewed under this aspect, gender injustice appears as a species of distributive injustice that cries out for redistributive redress. Much like class, gender justice requires transforming the political economy so as to eliminate its gender structuring. Eliminating gender-specific exploitation, marginalisation, and deprivation requires abolishing the gender division of labour — both the gendered division between paid and unpaid labour and the gender division within paid labour. The logic of the remedy is akin to the logic with respect to class: it is to put gender out of business as such. If gender were nothing but a political-economic differentiation, in sum, justice would require its abolition.

That, however, is only half the story. In fact, gender is not only a political economic differentiation but a cultural-valuational differentiation as well. As such, it also encompasses elements that are more like sexuality than class and that bring it squarely within the problematic of recognition. Certainly, a major feature of gender injustice is androcentrism: the authoritative construction of norms that privilege traits associated with masculinity. Along with this goes cultural sexism: the pervasive devaluation and disparagement of things coded as “feminine,” paradigmatically — but not only — women. This devaluation is expressed in a range of harms suffered by women, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and pervasive domestic violence. trivialising, objectifying, and demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media; harassment and disparagement in all spheres of everyday life; subjection to androcentric norms in relation to which women appear lesser or deviant and that work to disadvantage them, even in the absence of any intention to discriminate. attitudinal discrimination; exclusion or marginalisation in public spheres and deliberative bodies; and denial of full legal rights and equal protections. These harms are injustices of recognition. They are relatively independent of political economy and are not merely “superstructural.” Thus, they cannot be remedied by political economic redistribution alone, but require additional independent remedies of recognition. Overcoming androcentrism and sexism requires changing the cultural valuations (as well as their legal and practical expressions) that privilege masculinity and deny equal respect to women. It requires decentring androcentric norms and revaluing a despised gender. The logic of the remedy is akin to the logic with respect to sexuality: it is to accord positive recognition to a devalued group specificity.

Gender, in sum, is a bivalent mode of collectivity. It contains a political-economic face that brings it within the ambit of redistribution. Yet it also contains a cultural-valuational face that brings it simultaneously. within the ambit of recognition. Of course, the two faces are not neatly separated from each other. Rather, they intertwine to reinforce each other dialectically because sexist and androcentric cultural norms are institutionalised in the state and the economy, and women’s economic disadvantage restricts women’s “voice,” impeding equal participation in the making of culture, in public spheres and in everyday life. The result is a vicious circle of cultural and economic subordination. Redressing gender injustice, therefore, requires changing both political economy and culture.

But the bivalent character of gender is the source of a dilemma. Insofar as women suffer at least two analytically distinct kinds of injustice, they necessarily require at least two analytically distinct kinds of remedy: both redistribution and recognition. The two remedies pull in opposite directions, however, and are not easily pursued simultaneously. Whereas the logic of redistribution is to put gender out of business as such, the logic of recognition is to valorise gender specificity. Here, then, is the feminist version of the redistribution-recognition dilemma: How can feminists fight simultaneously to abolish gender differentiation and to valorise gender specificity?

An analogous dilemma arises in the struggle against racism. “Race,” like gender, is a bivalent mode of collectivity. On the one hand, it resembles class in being a structural principle of political economy. In this aspect, “race” structures the capitalist division of labour. It structures the division within paid work between low-paid, low-status, menial, dirty, and domestic occupations held disproportionately by people of colour, and higher-paid, higher-status, white-collar, professional, technical, and managerial occupations held disproportionately by “whites.” Today’s racial division of paid labour is part of the historic legacy of colonialism and slavery, which elaborated racial categorisation to justify brutal new forms of appropriation and exploitation, effectively constituting “blacks” as a political-economic caste. Currently, moreover, “race” also structures access to official labour markets, constituting large segments of the population of colour as a “superfluous,” degraded subproletariat or underclass, unworthy even of exploitation and excluded from the productive system altogether. The result is a political-economic structure that generates “race” — specific modes of exploitation, marginalisation, and deprivation. This structure constitutes “race” as a political-economic differentiation endowed with certain classlike characteristics. When viewed under this aspect, racial injustice appears as a species of distributive injustice that cries out for redistributive redress. Much like class, racial justice requires transforming the political economy so as to eliminate its racialisation. Eliminating “race"-specific exploitation, marginalisation, and deprivation requires abolishing the racial division of labour — both the racial division between exploitable and superfluous labour and the racial division within paid labour. The logic of the remedy is like the logic with respect to class; it is to put “race” out of business as such. If “race” were nothing but a political-economic differentiation, in sum, justice would require its abolition.

Yet “race,” like gender,” is not only political economic. It also has cultural valuational dimensions, which bring it into the universe of recognition. Thus, “race” too encompasses elements that are more like sexuality than class. A major aspect of racism is Eurocentrism: the authoritative construction of norms that privilege traits associated with “whiteness.” Along with this goes cultural racism: the pervasive devaluation and disparagement of things coded as “black,” “brown,” and “yellow,” paradigmatically — but not only — people of colour. This depreciation is expressed in a range of harms suffered by people of colour, including demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media as criminal, bestial, primitive, stupid, and so on; violence, harassment, and “dissing” in all spheres of everyday life; subjection to Eurocentric norms in relation to which people of colour appear lesser or deviant and that work to disadvantage them, even in the absence of any intention to discriminate; attitudinal discrimination. exclusion from and/or marginalisation in public spheres and deliberative bodies; and denial of full legal rights and equal protections. As in the case of gender, these harms are injustices of recognition. Thus, the logic of their remedy, too, is to accord positive recognition to devalued group specificity.

“Race,” too, therefore, is a bivalent mode of collectivity with both a political-economic face and a cultural-valuational face. Its two faces intertwine to reinforce each other dialectically, moreover, because racist and Eurocentric cultural norms are institutionalised in the state and the economy, and the economic disadvantage suffered by people of colour restricts their “voice.” Redressing racial injustice, therefore, requires changing both political economy and culture. But as with gender, the bivalent character of “race” is the source of a dilemma. Insofar as people of colour suffer at least two analytically distinct kinds of injustice, they necessarily require at least two analytically distinct kinds of remedy, redistribution and recognition, which are not easily pursued simultaneously. Whereas the logic of redistribution is to put “race” out of business as such, the logic of recognition is to valorise group specificity. Here, then, is the antiracist version of the redistribution-recognition dilemma: How can antiracists fight simultaneously to abolish “race” and to valorise the cultural specificity of subordinated racialised groups?

Both gender and “race,” in sum, are dilemmatic modes of collectivity. Unlike class, which occupies one end of the conceptual spectrum, and unlike sexuality, which occupies the other, gender and “race” are bivalent, implicated simultaneously in both the politics of redistribution and the politics of recognition. Both, consequently, face the redistribution-recognition dilemma. Feminists must pursue political-economic remedies that would undermine gender differentiation, while also pursuing cultural-valuational remedies that valorise the specificity of a despised collectivity. Antiracists, likewise, must pursue political-economic remedies that would undermine “racial” differentiation, while also pursuing cultural-valuational remedies that valorise the specificity of despised collectivities. How can they do both things at once?

Affirmation or Transformation?
Revisiting the Question of Remedy

So far I have posed the redistribution-recognition dilemma in a form that appears quite intractable. I have assumed that redistributive remedies for political-economic injustice always dedifferentiate social groups. Likewise, I have assumed that recognition remedies for cultural-valuational injustice always enhance social group differentiation. Given these assumptions, it is difficult to see how feminists and antiracists can pursue redistribution and recognition simultaneously.

Now, however, I want to complicate these assumptions. In this section, I shall examine alternative conceptions of redistribution, on the one hand, and alternative conceptions of recognition, on the other. My, aim is to distinguish two broad approaches to remedying injustice that cut across the redistribution-recognition divide. I shall call them “affirmation” and “transformation” respectively. After sketching each of them generically, I shall show how each operates in regard to both redistribution and recognition. On this basis, finally, I shall reformulate the redistribution-recognition dilemma in a form that is more amenable to resolution.

Let me begin by briefly distinguishing affirmation and transformation. By affirmative remedies for injustice, I mean remedies aimed at correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the underlying framework that generates them. By transformative remedies, in contrast, I mean remedies aimed at correcting inequitable outcomes precisely by restructuring the underlying generative framework. The crux of the contrast is end-state outcomes versus the processes that produce them. It is not gradual versus apocalyptic change.

This distinction can be applied, first of all, to remedies for cultural injustice. Affirmative remedies for such injustices are currently associated with what I shall call “mainstream multiculturalism.” This sort of multiculturalism 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 redress disrespect by transforming the underlying cultural-valuational structure. By destabilising existing group identities and differentiations, these remedies would not only raise the self-esteem of members of currently disrespected groups. they would change everyone’s sense of self.

To illustrate the distinction, let us consider, once again, the case of the despised sexuality. Affirmative remedies for homophobia and heterosexism are currently associated with gay-identity politics, which aims to revalue gay and lesbian identity.” Transformative remedies, in contrast, are associated with queer politics, which would deconstruct the homo-hetero dichotomy. Gay identity politics treats homosexuality as a cultural positivity with its own substantive content, much like (the commonsense view of) an ethnicity. This positivity is assumed to subsist in and of itself and to need only additional recognition. Queer politics, in contrast, treats homosexuality as the constructed and devalued correlate of heterosexuality. both are reifications of sexual ambiguity and are codefined only in virtue of each other. The transformative aim is not to solidify a gay identity but to deconstruct the homo-hetero dichotomy so as to destabilise all fixed sexual identities. The point is not to dissolve all sexual difference in a single, universal human identity; it is, rather, to sustain a sexual field of multiple, debinarised, fluid, ever-shifting differences.

Both these approaches have considerable interest as remedies for misrecognition. But there is one crucial difference between them. Whereas gay-identity politics tends to enhance existing sexual group differentiation, queer politics tends to destabilise it — at least ostensibly and in the long run. The point holds for recognition remedies more generally. Whereas affirmative recognition remedies tend to promote existing group differentiations, transformative recognition remedies tend, in the long run, to destabilise them so as to make room for future regroupments. I shall return to this point shortly.

Analogous distinctions hold for the remedies for economic injustice. Affirmative remedies for such injustices have been associated historically with the liberal welfare state. They seek to redress end-state maldistribution, while leaving intact much of the underlying political-economic structure. Thus, they would increase the consumption share of economically disadvantaged groups, without otherwise restructuring the system of production. Transformative remedies, in contrast, have been historically associated with socialism. They would redress unjust distribution by transforming the underlying political-economic structure. By restructuring the relations of production, these remedies would not only alter the end-state distribution of consumption shares; they would also change the social division of labour and thus the conditions of existence for everyone.

To illustrate the distinction, let us consider, once again, the case of the exploited class. Affirmative redistributive remedies for class injustices typically include income transfers of two distinct kinds: social insurance programs share some of the costs of social reproduction for the stably employed, the so-called primary sectors of the working class; public assistance programs provide means-tested, “targeted” aid to the “reserve army” of the unemployed and underemployed. Far from abolishing class differentiation per se, these affirmative remedies support it and shape it. Their general effect is to shift attention from the class division between workers and capitalists to the division between employed and nonemployed fractions of the working class. Public assistance programs “target” the poor, not only for aid but for hostility. Such remedies, to be sure, provide needed material aid. But they also create strongly cathected, antagonistic group differentiations.

The logic here applies to affirmative redistribution in general. Although this approach aims to redress economic injustice, it leaves intact the deep structures that generate class disadvantage. Thus, it must make surface reallocations 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 injustices of recognition.

In a sense, this approach is self-contradictory. Affirmative redistribution generally presupposes a universalist conception of recognition, the equal moral worth of persons. Let us call this its “official recognition commitment.” Yet the practice of affirmative redistribution, as iterated over time, tends to set in motion a second — stigmatising — recognition dynamic, which contradicts its official commitment to universalism. This second, stigmatising, dynamic can be understood as the “practical recognition-effect” of affirmative redistribution.

Now contrast this logic with transformative remedies for distributive injustices of class. Transformative remedies typically, combine universalist social-welfare programs, steeply progressive taxation, macroeconomic policies aimed at creating full employment, a large nonmarket public sector, significant public and/or collective ownership, and democratic decision making about basic socioeconomic priorities. They try to assure access to employment for all, while also tending to delink basic consumption shares from employment. Hence, their tendency is to undermine class differentiation. Transformative remedies reduce social inequality without, however, creating stigmatised classes of vulnerable people perceived as beneficiaries of special largesse. They tend therefore to promote reciprocity and solidarity in the relations of recognition. Thus, an approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can help redress (some) injustices of recognition as well.

This approach is self-consistent. Like affirmative redistribution, transformative redistribution generally presupposes a univeralist conception of recognition, the equal moral worth of persons. Unlike affirmative redistribution, however, its practice tends not to undermine this conception. Thus, the two approaches generate different logics of group differentiation. Whereas affirmative remedies can have the perverse effect of promoting class differentiation, transformative remedies tend to blur it. In addition, the two approaches generate different subliminal dynamics of recognition. Affirmative redistribution can stigmatise the disadvantaged, adding the insult of misrecognition to the injury of deprivation. Transformative redistribution, in contrast, can promote solidarity, helping to redress some forms of misrecognition.

What, then, should we conclude from this discussion? In this section, we have considered only the “pure” ideal-typical cases at the two extremes of the conceptual spectrum. We have contrasted the divergent effects of affirmative and transformative remedies for the economically rooted distributive injustices of class, on the one hand, and for the culturally rooted recognition injustices of sexuality, on the other. We saw that affirmative remedies tend generally to promote group differentiation, while transformative remedies tend to destabilise or blur it. We also saw that affirmative redistribution remedies can generate a backlash of misrecognition, while transformative redistribution remedies can help redress some forms of misrecognition.

All this suggests a way of reformulating the redistribution-recognition dilemma. We might ask: For groups who are subject to injustices of both types, what combinations of remedies work best to minimise, if riot altogether to eliminate, the mutual interferences that can arise when both redistribution and recognition are pursued simultaneously?

Finessing the Dilemma: Revisiting Gender and “Race”

Imagine a four-celled matrix. The horizontal axis comprises the two general kinds of remedies we have just examined, namely, affirmation and transformation. The vertical axis comprises the two aspects of justice we have been considering, namely, redistribution and recognition. On this matrix we can locate the four political orientations just discussed. In the first cell, where redistribution and affirmation intersect, is the project of the liberal welfare state. centred on surface reallocations of distributive shares among existing groups, it tends to support group differentiation; it can also generate back-lash misrecognition. In the second cell, where redistribution and transformation intersect, is the project of socialism; aimed at deep restructuring of the relations of production, it tends to blur group differentiation; it can also help redress some forms of misrecognition. In the third cell, where recognition and affirmation intersect, is the project of mainstream multiculturalism; focused on surface reallocations of respect among existing groups, it tends to support group differentiation. In the fourth cell, where recognition and transformation intersect, is the project of deconstruction; aimed at deep restructuring of the relations of recognition, it tends to destabilise group differentiations. (See Figure 1.1.)

Figure 1.1
 AffirmationTransformation
Redistribution the liberal welfare state
surface reallocations of existing goods to existing groups; supports group differentiation; can generate misrecognition
socialism
deep restructuring of relations of production; blurs group differentiation; can help remedy some forms of misrecognition
Recognition mainstream multiculturalism
surface reallocations of respect to existing identities of existing groups; supports group differentiations
deconstruction
deep restructuring of relations of recognition; destabilises group differentiation

This matrix casts mainstream multiculturalism as the cultural analogue of the liberal welfare state, while casting deconstruction as the cultural analogue of socialism. It thereby allows us to make some preliminary assessments of the mutual compatibility of various remedial strategies. We can gauge the extent to which pairs of remedies would work at cross-purposes with each other if they were pursued simultaneously. We can identify pairs that seem to land us squarely on the horns of the redistribution-recognition dilemma. We can also identify pairs that hold out the promise of enabling us to finesse it.

Prima facie at least, two pairs of remedies seem especially unpromising. The affirmative redistribution politics of the liberal welfare state seems at odds with the transformative recognition politics of deconstruction. whereas the first tends to promote group differentiation, the second tends rather to destabilise it. Similarly, the transformative redistribution politics of socialism seems at odds with the affirmative recognition politics of mainstream multiculturalism; whereas the first tends to undermine group differentiation, the second tends rather to promote it.

Conversely, two pairs of remedies seem comparatively promising. The affirmative redistribution politics of the liberal welfare state seems compatible with the affirmative recognition politics of mainstream multiculturalism; both tend to promote group differentiation, although the former can generate backlash misrecognition. Similarly, the transformative redistribution politics of socialism seems compatible with the transformative recognition politics of deconstruction; both tend to undermine existing group differentiations.

To test these hypotheses, let us revisit gender and “race.” Recall that these are bivalent differentiations, axes of both economic and cultural injustice. Thus, people subordinated by gender and/or “race” need both redistribution and recognition. They are the paradigmatic subjects of the redistribution-recognition dilemma. What happens in their cases, then, when various pairs of injustice remedies are pursued simultaneously? Are there pairs of remedies that permit feminists and antiracists to finesse, if not wholly to dispel, the redistribution-recognition dilemma?

Consider, first, the case of gender. Recall that redressing gender injustice requires changing both political economy and culture, so as to undo the vicious circle of economic and cultural subordination. As we saw, the changes in question can take either of two forms, affirmation or transformation. Leaving aside the prima facie unpromising cases, let us consider, first, the prima facie promising case in which affirmative redistribution is combined with affirmative recognition.” As the name suggests, affirmative redistribution to redress gender injustice in the economy includes affirmative action, the effort to assure women their fair share of existing jobs and educational places, while leaving unchanged the nature and number of those jobs and places. Affirmative recognition to redress gender injustice in the culture includes cultural feminism, the effort to assure women respect by revaluing femininity, while leaving unchanged the binary gender code that gives the latter its sense. Thus, the scenario in question combines the socioeconomic politics of liberal feminism with the cultural politics of cultural feminism. Does this combination really finesse the redistribution-recognition dilemma?

Despite its initial appearance of promise, this scenario is problematic. Affirmative redistribution fails to engage the deep level at which the political economy is gendered. Aimed primarily at combating attitudinal discrimination, it does not attack the gendered division of paid and unpaid labour, nor the gendered division of masculine and feminine occupations within paid Labor. Leaving intact the deep structures that generate gender disadvantage, it must make surface reallocations again and again. The result is not only to underline gender differentiation. It is also to mark women as deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time women can even come to appear privileged, recipients of special treatment and undeserved largesse. Thus, an approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can end up fuelling backlash injustices of recognition.

This problem is exacerbated when we add the affirmative recognition strategy of cultural feminism. That approach insistently calls attention to, if it does not performatively create, women’s putative cultural specificity or difference. In some contexts, such an approach can make progress toward decentring androcentric norms. In this context, however, it is more likely to have the effect of pouring oil onto the flames of resentment against affirmative action. Read through that lens, the cultural politics of affirming women’s difference appears as an affront to the liberal welfare state’s official commitment to the equal moral worth of persons.

The other route with a prima facie promise combines transformative redistribution with transformative recognition. Transformative redistribution to redress gender injustice in the economy consists in some form of socialist feminism or feminist social democracy. And transformative recognition to redress gender injustice in the culture consists in feminist deconstruction aimed at dismantling androcentrism by destabilising gender dichotomies. Thus, the scenario in question combines the socioeconomic politics of socialist feminism with the cultural politics of deconstructive feminism. Does this combination really finesse the redistribution-recognition dilemma?

This scenario is far less problematic. The long-term goal of deconstructive feminism is a culture in which hierarchical gender dichotomies are replaced by networks of multiple intersecting differences that are demassified and shifting. This goal is consistent with transformative socialist-feminist redistribution. Deconstruction opposes the sort of sedimentation or congealing of gender difference that occurs in an unjustly gendered political economy. Its utopian image of a culture in which ever-new constructions of identity and difference are freely elaborated and then swiftly deconstructed is possible, after all, only on the basis of rough social equality.

As a transitional strategy, moreover, this combination avoids fanning the flames of resentment. If it has a drawback, it is rather that both deconstructive-feminist cultural politics and socialist-feminist economic politics are far removed from the immediate interests and identities of most women, as these are currently culturally constructed.

Analogous results arise for “race,” where the changes can again take either of two forms, affirmation or transformation. Leaving aside once again the unpromising cases, let us consider the two prima facie promising scenarios. The first pairs affirmative redistribution with affirmative recognition. Affirmative redistribution to redress racial injustice in the economy includes affirmative action, the effort to assure people of colour their fair share of existing jobs and educational places, while leaving unchanged the nature and number of those jobs and places. Affirmative recognition to redress racial injustice in the culture includes cultural nationalism, the effort to assure people of colour respect by revaluing “blackness,” while leaving unchanged the binary black-white code that gives the latter its sense. The scenario in question thus combines the socioeconomic politics of liberal antiracism with the cultural politics of black nationalism or black power. Does this combination really finesse the redistribution-recognition dilemma?

Such a scenario is again problematic. As in the case of gender, affirmative redistribution here fails to engage the deep level at which the political economy is racialised. It does not attack the racialised division of exploitable and surplus labour, nor the racialised division of menial and nonmenial occupations within paid labour. Leaving intact the deep structures that generate racial disadvantage, it must make surface reallocations again and again. The result is not only to underline racial differentiation; it is also to mark people of colour as deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. Thus, they too can be cast as privileged recipients of special treatment. The problem is exacerbated when we add the affirmative recognition strategy of cultural nationalism. In some contexts, such an approach can make progress toward decentring Eurocentric norms, but in this context, the cultural politics of affirming black difference appears as an affront to the liberal welfare state. Fuelling the resentment against affirmative action, it can elicit intense backlash misrecognition.

What, then, of the second prima facie promising case, which combines transformative redistribution with transformative recognition. Transformative redistribution to redress racial injustice in the economy consists of some form of antiracist democratic socialism or antiracist social democracy. And transformative recognition to redress racial injustice in the culture consists of antiracist deconstruction aimed at dismantling Eurocentrism by destabilising racial dichotomies. Thus, the scenario in question combines the socioeconomic politics of socialist antiracism with the cultural politics of deconstructive antiracism.

This scenario, like its gender analogue, is far less problematic. The longterm goal of deconstructive antiracism is a culture in which hierarchical racial dichotomies are replaced by networks of multiple intersecting differences that are demassified and shifting. This goal, once again, is consistent with transformative socialist redistribution. Even as a transitional strategy, this combination, too, avoids fanning the flames of resentment. Its principal drawback, again, is that both deconstructive-antiracist cultural politics and socialist-antiracist economic politics are far removed from the immediate interests and identities of most people of colour, as these are currently culturally constructed.

What, then, should we conclude from this discussion? For both gender and “race,” the scenario that best finesses the redistribution-recognition dilemma is socialism in the economy plus deconstruction in the culture. But for this scenario to be psychologically and politically feasible requires that all people be weaned from their attachment to current cultural constructions of their interests and identities.

Conclusion

The redistribution-recognition dilemma is real. There is no neat theoretical move by which it can be wholly dissolved or resolved. The best we can do is to try to soften the dilemma by finding approaches that minimise conflicts between redistribution and recognition in cases where both must be pursued simultaneously.

I have argued here that socialist economics combined with deconstructive cultural politics works best to finesse the dilemma for the bivalent collectivities of gender and “race” — at least when they are considered separately. The next step would be to show that this combination also works for our larger sociocultural configuration. After all, gender and “race” are not neatly cordoned off from each other. Nor are they neatly cordoned off from sexuality and class. Rather, all these axes of injustice intersect one another in ways that affect everyone’s interests and identities. No one is a member of only one such collectivity. And people who are subordinated along one axis of social division may well be dominant along another.

The task, then, is to figure out how to finesse the redistribution-recognition dilemma when we situate the problem in this larger field of multiple, intersecting struggles against multiple, intersecting injustices. Although I cannot make the full argument here, I will venture three reasons for expecting that the combination of socialism and deconstruction will again prove superior to the other alternatives.

First, the arguments pursued here for gender and “race” hold for all bivalent collectivities. Thus, insofar as real-world collectivities mobilised under the banners of sexuality and class turn out to be more bivalent than the ideal-typical constructs posited above, they too should prefer socialism plus deconstruction. And that doubly transformative approach should become the orientation of choice for a broad range of disadvantaged groups.

Second, the redistribution-recognition dilemma does not arise only endogenously, as it were, within a single bivalent collectivity. It also arises exogenously, so to speak, across intersecting collectivities. Thus, anyone who is both gay and working-class will face a version of the dilemma, regardless of whether or not we interpret sexuality and class as bivalent. And anyone who is also female and black will encounter it in a multilayered and acute form. In general, then, as soon as we acknowledge that axes of injustice cut across one another, we must acknowledge crosscutting forms of the redistribution-recognition dilemma. And these forms are, if anything, even more resistant to resolution by combinations of affirmative remedies than the forms we considered above. For affirmative remedies work additively and are often at cross-purposes with one another. Thus, the intersection of class, “race,” gender, and sexuality intensifies the need for transformative solutions, making the combination of socialism and deconstruction more attractive still.

Third, that combination best promotes coalition building is especially pressing today, given the multiplication of social antagonisms, the fissuring of social movements, and the growing appeal of the Fight in the United States. In this context, the project of transforming the deep structures of both political economy and culture appears to be the one overarching programmatic orientation capable of doing justice to all current struggles against injustice. It alone does not assume a zero-sum game.

If that is right, then we can begin to see how badly off track is the current U.S. political scene. We and our best efforts to redress these injustices by means of the combination of the liberal welfare state plus main stream multiculturalism are generating perverse effects. Only by looking to alternative conceptions of redistribution and recognition can we meet the requirements of justice for all.