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Interview with Nancy Fraser (CTXT, 2016)

Source: CTXT

By Alvaro Guzman Bastida

Nancy Fraser (Baltimore, 1947) has been at the forefront of feminist struggle and critical theory since the late 1960s. A critic of what she calls ‘neoliberal feminism,’ her theories on recognition and redistribution as terms to understand social inequities have become hugely influential. She met with CTXT in her office in the Philosophy department of the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, to discuss the pre-eminence of identity politics in our time, the importance of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and why she felt compelled to introduce a third concept –that of ‘representation’ in her latest book (‘Fortunes of Feminism’) in order to explain both what ails contemporary society, and where the struggles to fix it ought to focus.

Fifteen years ago you wrote about a term you borrowed from Hegel, ‘recognition,’ saying it was the keyword of the time when it came to understanding questions of difference and identity. How did Hegel understand it and why is it salient?

In Hegel you have essentially two actors encountering one another and each is a subject, but in order to be a full subject, each needs to be recognized by the other. Each affirms the other as a subject in its own right that is simultaneously equal and different from me. If both people can affirm that, then you have a reciprocal egalitarian, symmetrical process of recognition. But, famously, in the master-slave dialectic, they encounter one another on highly asymmetrical, unequal terms, terms of domination or subordination. Then you get non-reciprocal recognition.

Why has it been so en vogue since the early 2000s?

It has to do with what at the time I was calling the post-socialist condition. This was a moment in the history of post-war societies, in which the problematic of distributive justice had lost its hegemonic capacity to organize the overwhelmingly largest majority share of social struggle and social conflict. Up until this point, in the post-war period, this redistribution paradigm was hegemonic, and almost all social discourse and conflict was organized in those terms. This meant that many issues had a hard time getting heard. Many claims were relegated to the margin because they didn’t fit the distributive grammar. Basically, what we can now see with hindsight is that the rise of the politics of recognition coincides with the rise of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is in effect displacing the social-democratic imaginary and in its attack on egalitarian distributive justice, that whole social-democratic model is, if not totally collapsing, at least fraying, loosing its hold, losing its ability to organize political space and discourse, and in a way that opens room for the various recognition claims and struggles.

What are some examples?

After 1989*, the collapse of communism and whole Soviet Bloc, What do we get? Very quickly, a rise of religious antagonism, of national antagonism –Now we are on the terrain of recognition. Earlier, those claims were repressed –they were excluded. So there was a communist version of the distributive discourse. That’s destroyed. In the West, it’s the loss of social democratic hegemony. Aside from the rise of neoliberalism, part of it has to do with what’s happening to the new social movements that came out of the 1960s. The New Left had a radical, you could even say anti-capitalist ethos, so it was focused both on redistribution and recognition, I would say, in very radical ways. But as the decades passed, and the sort of radical anti-capitalist spirit of the New Left faded away, what you were left with, the successor movements – a new kind of feminism, a new kind of anti-racism, the sexuality politics of the LGBT movement- they tended to ignore the political economy side of things and focus on questions that I would analyze in terms of status or recognition.

You connect those questions to identity politics. To what extent is that a pejorative term?

Part of what I tried to do in my analysis was to detach a very quick identification between politics of identity and politics of recognition. I have tried to say, politics of recognition is a legitimate dimension of justice, and claims to overcome injustices of recognition are important; they cannot be simply reduced to distribution claims as a vulgar Marxism would have it. I wanted to fend the importance, the legitimacy, the relative autonomy, of recognition claims. But, I want to suggest that there is more than one way to understand them – it doesn’t have to take the form of identity politics. In fact, often, recognition claims do take the form of identity politics. This is unfortunate in my view. It creates all sorts of problems and it’s often better if you can find a non-identitarian understanding of what it means to struggle for recognition.

What should it mean?

What a movement like feminism should be struggling for is not the idea that there is some distinct identity or ethos of femininity that needs affirmative recognition, so that it’s equal with masculinity. No, I would say that the politics of recognition in a feminist movement ought to be a struggle against the forms of status inequality that are linked to gender terms. And that leaves it quite open whether this should be revaluing ‘the feminine’ whatever that is. So I’m trying to detach the politics of recognition from identity politics.

Looking back, I get the sense that –correct me if this is a wrong analysis- there’s been great progress on issues of recognition in the U.S., marriage equality and so on, and even on issues of visibility, with things like having a black president. Has there been too much of that and too little emphasis on redistribution? We live at very unequal times, and that doesn’t seem to be going any better.

It’s not a question of too much-too little, but that there’s not been a balance. There’s been an imbalance and a one-sidedness. For example, the gay movement, the LGBT movement, focus on marriage equality and on access for military service. Now, these would not be my first choices for places to wage the fight on. However, both of them, interestingly, do have a distributive element. The military is one of the few routes to a paid college education, for instance, so there are economic benefits to it. And to have the right to marry carries economic and social entitlements as well as symbolic ones of recognition.

What would have been alternative routes that you would have liked better?

Well, I would have preferred a struggle to make basic social entitlements simply the social rights of individuals, independent of their marital status, I would have preferred a society that deemphasizes who is married and who isn’t. Instead of saying, we want to get married too! Why not say, you get your health benefits, tax and you get all kinds of other benefits just by being a person, a citizen, a resident, living in the country.

Because those are on par in terms of the redistributive elements but they emphasize status. Is that why?

Yes, and the marriage equality thing introduces its own invidious status comparisons, between those who are married and those who aren’t and so on. We don’t need to reinforce that.

In the early 2000s you were writing about a problem of “displacement,” in which “questions of recognition were serving to marginalize and exclusivize redistributive struggles.” Again, it’s been almost two decades- How do you take stock of this period?

The landscape of social conflict and claims-making in the United States at least, is very different from when I was writing. The most dramatic illustration is the current presidential primary electoral campaign, where we have on the one side Bernie Sanders, who claims to be a ‘democratic socialist,’ who is essentially putting out a strong class line that is overwhelmingly focused on distribution. He also supports all the good progressive recognition struggles, but front-and-center, the real weight of gravity is about this question of the billionaire class, the one percent and so on.

Is that surprising to you that he could get that far in the primary by emphasizing class?

Yes! It’s fantastically surprising. I’m very happy about it, and I would have never predicted it and it shows me, first of all, how far we’ve gone from the end of the Cold War. The fact that you can use the term socialism and it doesn’t carry that baggage or inspire the same kind of red-baiting and craziness, that’s interesting. On the other side, the Donald Trump side, there we definitely have a certain kind of right wing authoritarian nationalist populism that also kind of evokes the sort of class problematic but it colors it in an exclusionary, quasi-racist and certainly nationalist way. So it’s as if these two figures differ very sharply on recognition politics –as well as their programmatic proposals- but they both express a new salience of distribution. That is new, when I was writing in the mid 90s about it, distribution was on the margins, and everything was recognition, recognition, recognition. That is no longer the case. Recognition doesn’t disappear and it should not disappear, but I think they’re in a different kind of balance.

Since you brought up the elections –What about the other candidate on the democratic side, Hillary Clinton? A lot of second-wave feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, have argued vocally that women should support her because she’s a woman and she’s the feminist candidate. Is she the feminist candidate?

Well, I would not say that she is. But there’s something very interesting going on. Clinton has been a card-carrying feminist for decades, she started her career doing advocacy for children and women, she’s famous for her UN speech about women’s rights are human rights, she’s been reliably pro-choice and so on. So if that all fits into this sort of recognition side, she’s been there, and in a more explicit, and front-and-center way than Sanders. But, on the other hand, What kind of feminism is this? Clinton embodies a certain kind of neoliberal feminism that is focused on cracking the glass ceiling, leaning in. That means removing barriers that would prevent rather privileged, highly educated women who already have a high amount of cultural and other forms of capital to rise in the hierarchies of government and business. This is a feminism whose main beneficiaries are rather privileged women, whose ability to rise in a sense relies on this huge pool of very low-paid precarious, often racialized precarious service work, which is also very feminized that provide all the care work. And at the same time, Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is very implicated with Wall Street, with financial deregulation, and with this whole neoliberalization of the economy. So the kind of feminism that Sanders represents has a better chance of being a feminism for all women, for poor women, for black women, for working-class women and so on, and that is closer to my kind of feminism.

You introduce a third term in your book, where you don’t just talk about recognition and redistribution, but you offer representation also. Why did you feel the need to do that?

Because it thematizes the idea in an explicit way, that apart from questions of economic distribution on one side and questions of status and recognition on the other, there is a whole other set of questions that have to do with the political itself as a fundamental dimension of society. And I think in our time, the whole question of who has political standing, in a world of refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented people- becomes a very important question. This is not specifically about recognition or redistribution, even though it definitely intersects with them. It’s also about having political voice.

To what extent do those transcend borders?

When I think about political voice and who has it and who doesn’t, I think one should think not only about the bounded political community of a given nation state, like the U.S. or any other, but also in the larger international, transnational, global context. There’s also the question of a world in which states are very unequally empowered. So, suppose you’re a citizen of, say, Somalia, and you have, if not a failed state, a very weak state that is deeply under the thumb of large global powers or of global financial institutions, like the IMF and so on –there are big questions about political voice that have to do with this larger level and not just within your state but in the world system as such. And I think that the only way to get at those is through this concept of representation. So the idea would be now to think about three dimensions of justice – three different forms of injustice if you like, maldistribution, misrecognition and mis-or non-representation, or the misframing of questions of politics.

So how do you articulate that in terms of social movements or politics? I’m thinking of Europe, for example –there’s a debate about how to articulate political subjectivities, whether that can happen without identity politics taking hold, or even taking over. Because you introduce the concept of representation or transnationality, Can one build collective power in a globalized world without emphasizing identity, and putting an emphasis on, for example, representation? How do you propose that could happen?

Well I think for example, the whole structure and problem of the European Union is in part a question about representation. Just simply by virtue of the fact that the European Central Bank and the global financial institutions now, in connection with the so-called Troika, hold an enormous amount power, such that they are capable, through the enforcement of austerity and so on, of invalidating elections. They can tell the Greeks, “We don’t care who you voted for! You can’t have those policies!” So, there are just basic questions about where political power and political voice lie that are in the structure of the European Union as it intersects with the global financial order. That’s above and beyond, or, let’s say intercuts with problems of recognition and distribution. Because you can have a kind of recognition politics in Europe where wealthier Northern countries look down on the so-called PIGS- the Southern countries, as being lazy and tax-evading, etc. That’s an old familiar recognition story. But where it becomes really lethal is where it intersects with this structural problem so that –and of course it has to do with the creation of the Euro itself- in which then you get imposed austerity against democratic voice.

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