An Astonishing Time of Great Boldness: On the Politics of Recognition and Redistribution


Jo Littler interviews Nancy Fraser, in Eurozine (Photo: Scott Robinson. Source: Flickr):

JL: In your work you've often warned against trading-in a truncated economism for a truncated culturalism, and stressed the importance of combining both approaches. How would you locate yourself in relation to that paradigm? How have you yourself been shaped by the politics of recognition and redistribution?

NF: I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland in the days when it was a Jim Crow segregated city. The formative experience of my life, in my early teenage years, was the struggle for racial desegregation – to dismantle Jim Crow. This was a struggle for recognition of the most compelling and obviously just kind. And like many people of my generation, I moved in quick sequence from there to anti-Vietnam War struggles. I encountered Marxism in unorthodox, democratic, New Left form. That gave me a way to try and think conceptually about the various battles against different forms of domination that were so intense in that period. And soon second-wave feminism erupted and came in to the mix. Now, all of this was going on in a time of relative prosperity. I don't think we in the New Left and the early second-wave feminist movement worried very much about how we would support ourselves. Of course we were young, and we often didn't have children; but there was very much a sense – which proved to be an illusion, but was a felt sense nonetheless – that the first-world model of Keynesian capitalist prosperity would continue. We certainly had a perspective about class, and we understood very well that racism correlated with poverty and exploitation. But we thought, looking through a quasi-Marxian socialist-feminist analytical lens, that what seemed to be a secure social-democratic drift meant that redistribution was relatively unproblematic, and that what we had to do was to fight to introduce the importance of recognition into the forms of traditional Marxism and economistic thinking that dominated even social democracy at the time. That proved to be wrong. I soon found myself getting more and more nervous, as the 1980s wore on into the 1990s, that the critique of political economy was being lost amongst the new social movements, the successor movements to the New Left – including feminism. I felt we were getting a one-sided development of the politics of recognition. To me, recognition always only made sense when it was connected to the political economic dimension of society. Otherwise – as with feminism – you get women put on a pedestal and lots of lip service about how important care work is, but it's a sentimentalized, almost Victorian ethos unless you connect it to political economy. That's when I started saying “We had a great critique of economism of a vulgar sort – let's not make the same mistake and end up ourselves with some kind of a vulgar culturalism”.

Above all in the US, but also elsewhere throughout the world, there was a paradigm shift towards the dimension of recognition, and it arose exactly at the moment – it's quite ironic – when the Keynesian social-democratic formation was beginning to unravel. We got the astonishing resurrection of liberal free-market ideas that everyone had assumed were in the dustbin of history forever.

More here.