Interview with Nancy Fraser: Justice as Redistribution, Recognition and Representation

Nancy Fraser‘s analysis of the obstacles to social and political justice represents an advance at a theoretical level for those who face the dilemmas of social practice.  In this sense, her work reinforces the importance of the role of the intellectual, not only when it comes to dealing with moments of crisis, but also with the latent tensions inherent in the social structure.  Her latest work, Escalas de Justicia, published in Spanish last autumn, presents the three dimensions of her theory of justice: redistribution in the economic sphere, recognition in the socio-cultural sphere and representation in the political sphere.  The emphasis on the latter dimension constitutes the novelty of this work, in which she also shifts the frame of her analysis from a national to a trans-national perspective.  Fraser’s published works include Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Post-Socialist” Condition (New York, Routledge, 1997); Redistribution or Recognition?  A Political-Philosophical Exchange, co-authored with Axel Honneth, (London, Verso, 1998); and recently, in Spanish, Escalas de Justicia (Barcelona, Herder, 2008).  This interview took place in October 2008 when Fraser gave a lecture to students on a course on the theory of justice organised by the Escola de la Dona (Women’s School) of the Diputació de Barcelona.  This talk formed part of the “Ariadne’s Thread: Feminist Thinkers” cycle.

In your first book, you spoke about cultural politics in relation to the structural problems of late capitalism.  You proposed, in an essay entitled “Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late-Capitalist Political Culture”1, a definition of politics as discursive action.  This definition allowed you to analyse the dynamics of the public sphere as a struggle over the interpretation of needs.  Yet, these struggles do not seem to have diminished.  Last year, the Organic Law for the Effective Equality between Women and Men was approved in Spain.  Can we assume that this marks the end of the discussion?

I cannot say much about the Spanish law on equality because I do not know very much about it.  But what I can say is that the struggles over the interpretations of needs, rights, demands, over existing normative forms, are in continual process in all societies, but especially in modern societies in which changes have been taking place over a long period, in those where the market is continually creating new situations, and in those where something like a public sphere exists that permits participation and intervention, at least where its limits are concerned.  In contexts like these, the struggle over interpretations does not stop, it is continuous; however, it is true that, on occasions, there are moments of provisional closure of the discussion, in which a previously disputed interpretation may become more or less hegemonic.  When this happens, the other interpretations which are also in play, though marginalised and unable to attract a large enough audience, can provoke a new situation in which the hegemony of the dominant interpretation is destabilised; in this case the ‘subordinated’ interpretations erupt once more into the public sphere and manage to get themselves debated.  I find it more illuminating to point to this process than to simply say that the diverse interpretations are in a continuous process of battling with each other.  There are periods with a relative hegemony, followed by periods of upheaval and great disagreement, which in turn are followed by periods of new hegemonies, etc.  My conjecture would be that if this Spanish law represents a provisional agreement between, if not all, at least many of the powers embedded in society, with the aim of achieving equality between men and women, then this may be a moment of relative hegemony.  However, I am sure that what is understood by ‘real equality’ will be argued over and will be a matter of conflict in the future.

In 1997, some ten years ago, in Justice Interruptus2, you denounced the false antithesis between economic and cultural demands as an ideological perspective that gets in the way of our attending to the challenges of social justice.  You spoke of a dualist perspective that would allow the overlap between economy and culture to be explored.  The basic idea was to investigate the economic subtext of cultural politics and the cultural subtext of economic politics.  Is this analytical perspective strong enough to break through the limits of a public sphere in which the rules of power determine who can speak and who cannot?

I don’t believe that any analytical perspective can be strong enough to overcome the acute asymmetries of power.  The way of overcoming them, or at least grappling with them, perhaps, is through political struggle and not through philosophical or analytical thought.  What philosophical and analytical thought can do is to clarify the situation and perhaps contribute a reflection that helps people to distinguish, within the range of political orientations available to them, which options are better or worse.  But, by itself, an analytical perspective does not change things.  I might quote Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach which says “philosophers interpret the world”, that is, it is struggle and the social movements that change it.  But I believe Marx also thought that political reflection, in the spirit of a critical theorisation, could help to clarify and illuminate the situation within which political struggles take place.  For my part, I propose another formula, which is present in my writings — that of the self-clarification of the struggles and desires of the time.  Nevertheless, even when the distinction between analytical reflection and political practice becomes blurred, they are not the same; what one would hope, though, is that the two can maintain a fruitful relation amidst the tensions that always exist between them.  It is a matter of different levels of commitment; what I have tried to achieve is a kind of communication between levels in which neither of them yields to the other.

Your methodological perspective is articulated around the normative principle of participative parity, from which flows the conceptualisation of the question of political representation.  In this sense, it seems that the principle helps to validate the legitimacy of the public sphere.  However, doesn’t the importance given to this legitimacy impede the counter-publics introducing changes into the hegemonic discourse?

Participative parity is an interpretative ideal of social justice, and as such, does not exist.  Instead, those who wish to live in the condition of participative parity should use the concept as a critical ideal to enable them, precisely, to reveal the existing disparities in participation, the asymmetries and the blocks placed by power, etc., and above all, to identify those obstacles that are rooted in social relations.

And the question in this case would be: what are the structural conditions that prevent participative parity?  This is how I understand this ideal, as a way of shining light onto the obstacles to justice.  It is not a matter of legitimising things that already exist, rather the question is to try and draw attention to the distance between the real and the ideal; that is, attract the attention of those around us with an abstract notion of justice, which then helps us to recognise injustice.  So, I do not contemplate this notion as a means to legitimise any existing public sphere.

In fact, the notion of the public sphere also contains a certain ideal of equality.  It is this that I defend, though only if it is used as a diagnostic tool to reveal injustices, disparities, limitations, the closure of publicity, the blocks on certain subjects. . .  These ideals should be used as diagnostic tools, not as tools of legitimisation.  It is a question of maintaining a different attitude towards ideal concepts.

Your response to the politics of recognition is the model of status.  In your theory you use this term to refer to the status that permits participation as an equal within the public sphere, so the problem of recognition is conceived as being a problem of social subordination.  Is it possible for us to overcome this social subordination through gender quotas?  Are these quotas affirmative or transformative policies?

There are two things to say with respect to my model of status.  The first is that I put forward this idea as an alternative to the way in which this is usually thought of — what I have termed “the identity model”.  Many theories consider that, when you devote yourself to the politics of recognition, what has to be recognised is your identity as a particular form of being: a woman, a person of colour, a gay or a lesbian, etc.  But the focus on identity brings with it serious problems, which is why I developed the status model as a way of avoiding the authoritarian reification and conformist logic of the identity model3.

The second thing to say is that I am not interested in limiting the idea of status to participation in the public sphere, in the sense of the political-discursive arena.  Justice requires that people have the position, the status, to be able to participate on an equal basis in any and every important arena of social life; that is, family life, the labour market, civil society and, obviously, in politics and in the political public sphere, but not only in these.  However, the question of gender quotas is a question of cultural politics.  The arguments advanced in France about the law on parity — a kind of quota system — consisted of a series of highly essentialist arguments which did not wholly convince me.  They considered that the human species could only take two forms: women and men.  In this way it seemed to me that they concealed other lines of social differentiation which also deserve representation, like that of race-ethnicity or religious minorities.

Having moved in the direction of such an affirmative conception, which naturalised the gender difference while not questioning it, what they did was to use this differentiation against other important strands of social thought. It would be interesting to ask ourselves if, in France, the institutional gender quotas in the political system will have the effect of reducing the representation of the ethnic minorities, immigrants, Muslims, or other religious minorities.  We still have no answer to this, but I am sceptical about it.  On the other hand, we might ask ourselves if, in another context, the idea of gender quotas could be articulated in a different, non-essentialist way, so that, in addition to linking the idea to other struggles for social justice, it connected with other lines of social differentiation bound up with the questions of the representation of immigrants or that of racial-ethnic minorities, people of colour, etc.  It is possible that if a more open quota could be devised that took these things into account, it would perhaps have a much more transformative effect.  One way of achieving this is, at least, keeping an open mind about these possibilities.

In your recent book Escalas de Justicia4 you speak about the change in the grammar of current political demands.  This change seems to have consequences for a new world order and would imply a different way of dealing with domestic justice.  In this context, the demands for justice appear as a new challenge by using the key “politics of framing”.  Does this politics of framing function as a political strategy for social movements or as a theoretical point of view?

I think it does both things.  I have reached this idea by observing developments at both a theoretical level and that of political practice.  In the latter I have been studying the various movements that question trans-frontier injustices, injustices that cross the borders marked by state frontiers — externalisation, environmental questions, access to medical drugs in poor countries, subsidies to farmers in rich countries, intellectual property rights — very tangible matters for the indigenous peoples who cannot use their traditional agricultural methods, or their seeds or medicine, etc.  Many of the most interesting political struggles today appear to involve these cross-border demands, which present a very profound challenge to the standard frame within which we understood struggles for social justice; a frame that until not long ago, not exclusively, but certainly in a priority way, ‘framed’ them as domestic-national questions — what I and other academics call the Westphalian frame of justice.  This frame, in effect, assumed that subjects of justice had to be citizens of a territorially defined state, and only amongst such citizens could demands be made, while those who were not citizens or were non-members ought properly to address their demands to their own states and not present them here.

The Westphalian frame, hegemonic for a long time, is today increasingly questioned by the movements that insist on dislocating it.  It is also true that situations like those of poor people from poor countries, whether seen within their own country or as forming part of some kind of ‘domestic ghetto’, constitute a way of depriving them of any opportunity to make demands on the powers that effectively determine the conditions of their lives, conditions that are not domestic, but trans-national and, even, in some cases, global.

All this forms part of a series of real advances in practice; these people are in fact practising the “politics of framing”.  At the same time, philosophers and critical theorists have come to realise how the traditional philosophical discourses and theoretical work have hidden the question of the frame from view.  The approach of people like John Rawls and all the great theorists of justice, some of whom limited their considerations to closed societies, not ones that are deeply interconnected with others, has given way to a time in which the question of the frame is also being dealt with by philosophers.

In the book you mentioned, Escalas de Justicia — which, by the way, has still not come out in English, it has only been published in Spanish — I discuss the whole question of the frame and try to situate it on two levels, the theoretical-philosophical and the practical.

This idea of the frame is a case in which we, philosophers and theoreticians, are learning from the social actors, from the social movements, and I hope that we have something to offer them and from which they can learn.  I see that what I myself am doing is to articulate the concepts in a theoretical way, bring them to the level of theoretical articulation.  The practice of these movements is not always conceptually and theoretically articulated.  By creating a language and arguments, these ideas can be strengthened, and taken more seriously.

Last year marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Simone de Beauvoir.  What do you believe should be the goals of the feminist movement today?

Simone de Beauvoir was an extraordinary figure, a great thinker.  It is very interesting that she wrote The Second Sex, her masterpiece, at a time when an activist feminist movement did not exist and, as a result, it was not immediately recognised as a great book, for it was not until later — in fact, in 1970 — that it found its true audience, with the appearance of the second wave of feminism.  Thus, it is quite surprising that someone from her background, without the activism of the feminist movement, could have formulated these ideas.  I believe that de Beauvoir is sometimes underestimated as a philosopher.  Often she is seen as simply applying Sartre’s ideas to more practical questions; but, in fact, her position, philosophically speaking, is different from that of Sartre.  I would say she is more innovative, more interesting, for she does not transmit the acute dichotomy he sees between the individual and society, between the being for itself and the being in itself, between immanence and transcendence; rather, she has more feel for the mediations between these opposites.  I believe that in the future, in the long term, her importance will be greater for us.

Regarding the challenges facing feminism today, it is a little curious to relate them to de Beauvoir, who is sometimes seen as a thinker whose idea of the goal of feminism was that women should come to be subjects in the same way she thought men were, and who has been accused of considering some aspects of women’s experiences like motherhood, etc. as wholly negative.  I don’t think this is being very fair to her.  But today, on a certain level, the second wave of feminism has perhaps questioned more deeply the ideals of the free subject that both she and Sartre espoused in a way that was perhaps too andro-centric, individualistic and had little to do with those forms of relation associated with the lives of women.  It is not that they are feminine forms of relation, but rather that culturally they have been associated with the lives of women.  These forms of relation are as valuable and fundamental to the human condition as the notions of individual freedom in opposition to society, and of freedom from relations.

Thus the challenges facing feminism on this level are not, and should not be, those of constructing feminine subjects based on a Sartrean masculine model of overloaded individuality, but rather of constructing a form of life for all, women and men, in which there is a good balance between individual freedom and social bonds; not one or the other. . .

One of the signs of a sexist society is that the two notions have become separated, that individual freedom is associated with men and social bonds with women, as if we needed two types of people: one to express individual freedom and the other the social relation.  I would propose as a goal for feminism that we try to attain a good balance for all between individual freedom and the forms of social relation.

What is the role of the intellectual for society?

I would prefer a society in which there was not a sharp separation between intellectuals and the rest of the people, for we all have the capacity to think deeply.  The ideal situation would be that intellectual life and work were more integrated with other forms of social practice.

However, it is true that in the conditions in which we are living, some forms of domination, of illegitimate social power, are a little difficult to see, since ours is not a society of explicit slavery or feudalism.  There are people who do not understand the actual power relations in the society they are living in; at least in the United States, this is something which remains hidden beneath the veneer of consumerism.  Critical intellectuals have to provide people with tools that enable them to see clearly the real forms of domination.  One of our main tasks is precisely to show up the myth of apparent equality, apparent democracy, and to show the ways in which we, in fact, live social relations marked by dominance and oppression.

Feminism has managed to do this very well in terms of gender subordination; second-wave feminism did a fantastic job in showing that gender relations that were simply considered good relations, normal relations, were, in reality, power relations; in my opinion this has been its most important contribution.  In terms of Critical Theory, of the Frankfurt School, this tradition of thought developed the Hegelian left and a heterodox Marxist model of research that connected philosophy with history, cultural criticism and psychoanalysis, etc., and that sought to produce a picture of society that would reveal those forms of domination that are not always clearly visible.  It is up to the critical intellectuals to carry on this work.

How can a “dualist perspective” help us to understand the US presidential campaign, the confrontation between John McCain-Sarah Palin and Barack Obama-Joseph Biden?  It is evident that there was a political game that played on the subtext of gender and race.

I no longer use the dualist perspective, but rather that of the ‘three dimensions’.  I agree there were different levels involved here.  There were the levels of the good old politics of redistribution, in which the last eight years of Bush, and even the Clinton years, have been a period of regressive redistributive politics, in which wealth has drifted away from the working people and been redistributed amongst the rich.  This has been disguised by the right with a warped politics of recognition; this was the way Bush, both father and son, the US right, perfected, and with no little ingenuity, the ability to make people vote against their own economic interests, by creating a whole world of politics of recognition.  Thus, the reason why a family was going through a difficult time was not to be found in the unemployment situation or in anything like that, but rather in the fact that women abort, that gays don’t respect the institution of matrimony, etc.  They are ways of using recognition as a kind of negative politics that conceals their disastrous redistributive politics.  The successful use of this smoke screen to distract attention from their colossal mistakes is utterly shameful.

With respect to the candidature of Sarah Palin, this was a clear attempt to co-opt a certain kind of feminism into supporting John McCain.  But after a couple of days of euphoria, her candidacy turned out to be a disaster, to the extent that it cost McCain the support of mothers, independents and other people he might have been able to count on.  It was an unwise thing to do if we consider the risk that something might have happened to McCain once he was elected, since he is not a healthy man, he is not young.  The attacks she made on Obama were also lamentable: that ‘he was a friend of the terrorists’, that ‘he was not one of us’, ‘not someone we could trust’. . .  All arguments with a thinly veiled racist tone, though people did not go along with her game.  Years ago, this would have worked, but what is interesting is that it doesn’t work any more.  Another thing to highlight is that feminism has now become such a positive phenomenon that even the right tries to co-opt it, whilst their predecessors simply rejected it with the argument that it was trying to manipulate us, though what they really wanted was for women to stay at home, and things like that.  But this doesn’t work any longer either; feminism has become an almost hegemonic ideology, as in the case of the Law on Effective Equality, which has ridden the waves of the storm about what equality means.  This is what I mean by hegemonic.  The choice of Palin was based on the idea that feminism has a hegemonic position that they could use for their own purposes.  Feminism is available as a certain type of power, with a hegemonic discourse, that can be articulated in different ways to suit different purposes, by diverse groups — by people who consider themselves feminists, but are not part of feminism and who seek to use it for other purposes.  That is how Sarah Palin can believe she is a feminist.

David Harvey spoke recently in Barcelona about neo-liberalism as a strategy of ‘class power’ that responds to changing historical needs.  As a result, neo-liberalism now accepts the contradiction of a posture in favour of interventionism.  What do you think of this neo-liberal strategy?

It is possible that neo-liberalism as we have understood it, as a project to promote the free market, is in crisis, and it is not yet clear whether the hegemonic project of capitalism will survive or whether the financial crisis will mark the beginning of a shift towards a new form of capitalism, or some new form of regime.  In the coming period, neo-liberalism will struggle to re-establish its hegemony.  Those who considered that the key task was that of promoting the neo-liberal agenda are now rushing to inject public funds in order to prevent a general collapse.  It has always been like this, and it is one of the contradictions of capitalism, as Harvey says.  Staggering from one crisis to the next, capitalism is continually obliged to develop new forms, new regimes of regulation and accumulation in order to save itself for itself.  This is simply opportunism.  Those who committed themselves to the neo-liberals will do anything to keep the system afloat, and perhaps many of them will become genuine converts to the idea of establishing a friendlier regulatory model.  Others, though, will wait for stability to be restored before once more arguing for the abandonment of regulations.

How does the current economic crisis affect your political theory?

We are beginning to think about this.  The financial crisis is still unfolding and I think it will take a while to understand what is happening and what it means.  I do not have enough technical knowledge of economics to make a contribution on that level, but I will say something about it.  In my talk I spoke about the way I understand the history of second-wave feminism, and it was the inspiration, or rather the pressure, of the current financial crisis that led me to revise my understanding of that history and consider the three moments of capitalism: the capitalism of the organised state, neo-liberal capitalism and, then, the big question mark: what will come next?  Because it is possible that we are seeing the beginning of a transition from neo-liberalism to some other kind of social formation of capital, and if this is what happens, we can expect a period of very intense struggles and debates about the form this post neo-liberal capitalism takes.  I would like to begin to think, together with other feminists and critical theorists, how we could contribute to the debate; help to develop a progressive, emancipatory perspective in this respect.  What this crisis represents is the possibility of a break: the end or denouement of neo-liberalism as the hegemonic model of capitalism and the possibility of a transition to something else.  This is the direction I am thinking in at the moment.

Can you tell us anything about your next work?

I am very interested in reflecting on what kind of social order might emerge in the post neo-liberal period, what might happen in the best scenario, the worst and somewhere in between.  This turns out to be of great importance for me since I have lived two important historical changes.  I have lived the shift from state capitalism to neo-liberalism, which has meant that much of the work I have done revolves around the problems of redistribution and recognition.  My objective then was to understand the changes and what were the effects of the period of the ‘new left’ on progressive movements, including second-wave feminism, and its effects are quite mixed.  Now I am living another equivalent momentus, the historical transition to something else and I am interested, as before, in making this an explicit theme in my work.

The second project I am thinking about is that of abnormal justice.  In the chapter devoted to this theme in Escalas de Justicia I developed a framework for thinking about how the struggles for justice are organised, or rather, disorganised, in a period in which we can not count on a grammar of justice that can be recognised as hegemonic; when, in other words, we are in a situation of abnormality.  At present the increasing abnormality of the discourses about justice is leading to an increase in uncertainty in the politics of those struggling for justice and against injustice.  Perhaps we might connect this idea with that of the crisis of the social formation of neo-liberalism and this period of transition and uncertainty.  We are living a moment in which neo-liberalism is losing its hegemony not only in the sense of the financial collapse, but also because, fortunately, it is now being widely criticised from various social standpoints.  We also have the uncertainty of the frames: should the struggles for justice be organised on a national basis?  On a global basis?  Trans-national?  Or all three at the same time?  And how?  All these are forms of uncertainty and abnormality in which people do not agree with each other.  But even given this lack of agreement, despite the uncertainty and abnormality, the struggle against injustice will go on, and indeed must go on; we cannot sit back and wait for a new grammar to resolve these problems.  My idea is that we have to be able to do both things at once; we should be capable of keeping up the struggle against injustice through the specific ways we choose to deal with these new conditions of uncertainty.



1  “Struggles over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late Capitalist Political Culture”.   In: Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory.   Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press and Polity Press, 1989.

2  Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Post-Socialist” Condition.  New York, Routledge, 1997.

3  See Fraser, N. and Honneth, A., Redistribution or Recognition?  A Political-Philosophical Exchange, London, Verso, 1998.

4  Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World, Columbia University Press (2008).

This interview was first published in Barcelona Metropolis (Spring 2009) under a Creative Commons license.