This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

Nancy Fraser’s insistence that we must not collapse two distinct modes of justice, recognition and redistribution, is well motivated. As she points out, an exclusive focus on the latter leads to a form of economic reductionism, an outlook according to which class struggle and economic oppression are the primordial form of oppression, or at least the only kind that matters. An exclusive focus on recognition, by contrast, can and indeed has collapsed into mere identity politics, for which the mere intelligibility of certain identity categories is so important that the sometimes unequal or even downright oppressive means by which that intelligibility is effected are left unexamined and unchallenged. A recognition-centric approach might, for instance, valorize female corporate executives as exemplars for how all women can attain visibility, economic independence, and ostensible self-expression without ever calling into question the inequalities upon which the corporation as an institution is based.

In opposition to both of these positions, Fraser offers an approach to feminist politics, and politics in general, that appreciates the importance of both redistribution and recognition, and the ways in which they can be deeply intertwined while at the same time remaining meaningfully distinct. For her, the enabling virtue for political action is parity, which she defines as the ability of all members of a society to substantively contribute to the discourse around which that society is organized. This principle requires that those members be able to interact with one another as peers, that is as equal participants in the societal discourse: equal in terms of their access, and the extent to which they are acknowledged by other participants. “Access” means the ability to materially sustain oneself such that actual participation in society is possible, and “acknowledgment” means that one’s status within society is intelligible to other people. The former, then, requires that material resources be redistributed equally, just as the latter requires paradigms of recognition. Fraser believes that her political ideal thus addresses both recognition and redistribution.

I cannot help but wonder, however, if Fraser’s approach doesn’t miss something that’s vitally needed for the possibility of a specifically anti-capitalist politics. It’s unclear to me whether or not Fraser is able to do justice to either redistribution or recognition as systematic problems, that is, as problems that have to do with overarching social structures and not just local or otherwise individualizable phenomena. Consider first the case of recognition. Although Fraser is undoubtedly right to criticize how contemporary leftism emphasizes recognition at the expense of other, equally important concerns, it seems like she doesn’t consider the way in which the logic of recognition and the identities it produces might be problematic in their own right.

Recognition doesn’t exist in a socio-historical vacuum. On the contrary, it could be argued that very concept of a discrete identity category to be recognized is entangled with certain notions of citizenship, individual autonomy, and intelligibility before the law. This is significant, because these same notions appear to be at work in various forms of capitalist ideology. Autonomy is the enabling virtue of entrepreneurship; the intelligibility of people to the state as citizens mirrors the way in which capitalist institutions understand human beings as consumers, and so on. Recognition is thus a means by which capitalism reproduces itself, and, for this reason, we cannot simply take for granted that a traditional understanding of recognition will be useful for an anti-capitalist politics. Rather, we must at least consider the possibility that such a politics requires us to revise the paradigm of recognition considerably, if not completely reject it.

A similar point can be made about redistribution by asking the question: redistribution of what? Capitalism, after all, does not merely involve the unequal distribution of wealth, but also the formation of a particular idea of what wealth is. It’s unlikely that I’ll get this exactly right, but the innovation, as it were, of capitalism is the idea that the value of products rests primarily in their exchange value, rather than in their use values or in labor that produces them. By understanding resources and material goods as the interchangeable bearers of abstract value, it becomes possible for capitalism to distribute these goods and resources between and across various markets for the purposes of creating surplus value, or wealth. The notion of distribution requires this abstraction. Can we be certain, then, that it doesn’t also require the capitalist architecture through which this abstraction is accomplished? If not, then it becomes unequally unclear how redistribution, i.e. distribution through more equitable means is necessarily anti-capitalist if distribution itself presupposes capitalism. It is perhaps not enough, then, to merely insist on redistribution without situating it within a larger political framework.

A potential counterargument might go something like this: systematic approaches fail to appreciate the way in which capitalism is not or at least no longer a system, but instead an aggregate of ever-changing paradigms that is able to respond to systematic challenges by somehow incorporating them into itself. According to Fraser, capitalism is capable of responding to political challenges in an unusual way. When debating, suppressing, or otherwise attacking anti-capitalist movements fail, capitalism is able to shed its own ideological underpinnings and incorporate those of the anti-capitalist opposition, thereby undermining that opposition through appropriating its socio-cultural foundations. Systematic approaches to anti-politics are especially vulnerable to this strategy due to their apparent ideological rigidity. For this reason, any attempt to reorient politics back towards systematicity, as opposed to remaining in the realm of “pragmatic” discourse analyses, will ultimately fail, and fail so catastrophically as to end up reinforcing capitalism rather than combatting it.

This is a fair point, but it invites a counterpoint that is equally concerning for Fraser’s own view. It is ultimately hard to see how Fraser’s notion of parity, at least as it is presented in the “Integrating Redistribution and Recognition in Feminist Politics” chapter, is itself necessarily immune to capitalist re-appropriation. Fraser herself attests to this. In addition to critiquing the appropriation of recognition by identity politics, she mentions how the redistribution of resources has been hijacked in neoliberal capitalism by private and often profit-driven NGO’s. It is not enough, therefore, just to value recognition and redistribution in their own rights. We must do so in a way that ensures that they will be attended to correctly. A larger framework is apparently necessary. Even if we accept that the response to capitalism cannot be as rigidly systematic as it was in the past, that shouldn’t mean that we have to abandon systematic approaches altogether, though it is without a doubt easier to make that gesture than actually work out what a proper approach might look like.

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