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Will Feminism Be Articulated to the Left or to the Right?


EA: You are one of the leading theorists trying to develop the notion of the public sphere.  In what ways has globalisation affected the public sphere?  Has the public sphere become more transnational?

NF: Today, the flow of public political discourse does not respect borders, but is often transnational.  The result is a serious challenge to public-sphere theory, as originally developed by Jürgen Habermas.  What made Habermas’s idea of the public sphere a critical concept was the tacit assumption that the arena in which public opinion circulated and in which it could gather political force was a territorial state — a bounded national community.  Thanks to that “Westphalian” assumption, the public sphere could serve as the civil-society counterpart of the modern state.  So it seemed that each of those indispensable two tracks of politics (the informal civil-society track and the formal-institutional track) were in place and well-matched, isomorphic to one another.  Given those presuppositions, the theory could offer a relatively clear critique of actually existing democratic states: These democracies were flawed insofar as their public spheres lacked legitimacy and efficacy — that is, insofar as the communicative processes through which public opinion was formed were restricted and not accessible to all on equal terms; and/or insofar as public opinion lacked the political force to influence state actors and hold them accountable.  In this way, the theory supplied a clear benchmark for evaluating social reality.  But the clarity evaporates when we consider the complex transborder circuits in which public opinion circulates today.  Where are the institutionalized public powers to which transnational opinion is addressed and which it should hold accountable?  Where are the public powers with the capacity to solve transborder problems, such as global warming or financial meltdown, in the general interest of transborder populations?  Where is the shared political status (analogous to shared citizenship) that positions members of transnational publics on terms of parity with one another, with equal participation rights and equal voice?  All these things are lacking today, and the match between publics and states presupposed by public-sphere theory is nowhere to be found.  Absent a correlation between the scale of public opinion, on the one side, and the scale of public powers, on the other, it becomes hard to envisage what the critical ideals of public-sphere theory (the legitimacy and efficacy of public opinion) could mean today.

EA: Can you give me any examples of how public opinion and state institutions no longer seem to match up?

NF: There are two equal and opposite problems.  In one case you have administrative powers that operate on a transnational scale, but you don’t have comparably broad transnational public spheres, where civil society actors can form and mobilise public opinion.  This is the case in the European Union today, where you have a relatively powerful administrative apparatus in Brussels, but no genuinely European-wide public-sphere: debate is still national.  We saw that in the French ‘no’ vote for example, which was driven largely by domestic considerations.  In this case the scale of institutional power outstrips that of public opinion.  European public opinion is not sufficiently transnational to hold European administrative powers accountable.

But we can see the opposite problem, too, for example, in the worldwide demonstrations of February 15 2003 against the impending US invasion of Iraq.  There could not have been a clearer global outpouring of public sentiment, the culmination of tremendous flows of communication and argument in the preceding months.  There something approaching a genuinely transnational — even global — public sphere did develop, but what did it accomplish?  A few weeks later Bush ordered the troops and tanks into Iraq.  There existed no institutionalized transnational public power that could implement that anti-war sentiment, no institutionalized agency that could make the opinion efficacious.  Here, then, is a case in which the transnational scale of public opinion outstripped that of global governance.  In the absence of transnational institutions that could translate anti-war opinion into actual policy, Bush felt free to simply ignore it: there was nothing to constrain him.

Until we come to grips with such mismatches of scale of both types, until we figure out how to overcome them, the theory of the public sphere will lack the kind of critical force it had before, when it presupposed the national frame.

EA: Do you think the global financial crisis calls for new transnational institutions?

NF: Yes: there won’t be any lasting and secure solution until we create democratically accountable transnational — in some cases global — institutions with the capacity to regulate markets, banking, finance.  In this area, there exist deficits at both ends at the same time: public opinion is not adequately scaled up, but the regulatory institutional capacities aren’t there either.  That is what makes the present situation so difficult.  Normally, the process of democratisation works when institutions already exist, and publics and social movements clamour to democratise them.  So first you get monarchies, and then you get republics, right?  Now our situation is a situation where we don’t have the global transnational public powers — we have to build them and democratize them at the same time.  We have some powers like the IMF and the WTO, and those we need to democratise for sure, but other necessary public powers don’t yet exist.

EA: Let’s move on to your thoughts about justice.  You have written about the popular theme of ‘recognition’ in political theory, and how this should be understood.  How do you understand the category of recognition?

NF: My interpretation goes against the standard view of recognition as a matter of identity.  In contrast to that view, I construe recognition as a question of status.  For me, accordingly, the issue is not whether others affirm my personal or collective self-understanding, but rather whether the institutionalized norms that regulate our interactions permit me to participate as a peer in social life.  On my view, then, the politics of recognition should not take the form of identity politics, aimed at ensuring that others esteem the allegedly specific traits of my social group.  Rather, it should aim to deinstitutionalize hierarchical patterns of cultural value that prevent some people from participating on a par with others in social interaction and to replace them with value patterns that foster parity.  It should aim, in other words at dismantling status inequalities and establishing status equality.

Thus, I distinguish the politics of recognition from the politics of redistribution.  In my view, the latter is a response to subordination and stratification in terms of class.  Here the question is whether or not everyone has the resources they need in order to participate fully in social interaction on terms of parity with everyone else.  But even when they have sufficient resources, people can still be prevented by participating on terms of parity in social life if they suffer from status inequality.  In that case, the injustice is not maldistribution but misrecognition — an injustice that is every bit as serious, as material, as the former.  Thus, I propose to understand the politics of recognition as aimed at combating status inequality and status subordination.  Whether we are talking about women, racialised immigrants, ethnic minorities, or religious minorities, struggles against injustices of misrecognotion are every bit as central to modern politics as struggles against injustices of maldistribution.  For me, in other words, class and status constitute two orders of subordination, analytically distinct but inter-imbricated in modern societies.

EA: When you talk about ‘status injustice’, what is the notion of justice behind that?

NF: I have a very demanding notion of justice as parity of participation.  It is not enough, in my view, to have formally equal rights, or formally equal opportunities.  It is not even enough to have the exact equality of resources or primary goods if that were even possible.  What is necessary are social arrangements that do not entrench systematic institutionalised obstacles to parity of participation.  So justice for me is about dismantling obstacles to parity that are institutionalised in unjust social arrangements.  If you ask me how I justify this rather demanding, radical democratic interpretation of justice, I will give you a conceptual argument.  I will say that the view of justice as participatory parity is a radical democratic interpretation of precisely that famous norm of equal respect for and equal autonomy of all human beings.  As I interpret it, equal respect simply means participatory parity.  Anything less makes a mockery of the notion of the equal dignity of all human beings.

I can also give you a historical argument.  Over time, our notions of equality have become more demanding.  For one thing, these notions have become broader, in the sense of applying in more and more spheres of life.  Originally, equal respect had quite a narrow meaning, namely, equal access to the courts and freedom of conscience in the sphere of religion.  Later, people came to see that it applied also in political life — hence the demand for political voice, the expansion of the franchise.  Still later, came the notion that equal respect applied in the marketplace, that it entailed economic and social rights.  Then with feminism came the idea that equality applied also in the family and in personal life.  Historically, then, the norm of equal respect or equality has come to apply in more and more spheres, and the burden of argument has shifted — it is now incumbent on those who think that it shouldn’t apply in some given domain to explain why.  Equality is the default position.

At the same time, the idea of equal respect has become less formal and more substantive.  So to take TH Marshall’s famous example, it is not enough to say that in theory everyone has the right to sue in a court of law.  To make that right real, everyone must have the means to exercise it.  Hence the famous formula from police dramas: “You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, you will be provided with one.”  Here we see that equality has a material dimension.  Thus, the career open to talents require not only the absence of external impediments but also the positive means, such free public education and an equitable division of domestic labour.  These examples show that the meaning of equality has become increasingly substantialised and demanding.  In effect, it has come to mean parity of participation.

EA: Isn’t there a danger that by putting the emphasis of your critical theory on ‘removing obstacles’ it sounds like you have quite a laissez-faire attitude to the historical process?  You have commented in some of your writings on the phenomenon that the political right seems increasingly to be able to dominate ideological argument, and you associate that phenomenon with a decline in utopian thinking on the left.

NF: As a theorist of justice, which is to say of injustice, I am interested in diagnosing the forms, structures and mechanisms of injustice in our society.  But I do agree that social movements have another side — that is that they project what we can call an ‘utopian imaginary’ of a better life.  That is simultaneously a necessity and a risk, as the utopian element can go bad and become authoritarian.

But I do agree with you: if we think of justice purely in procedural terms of fairness then this does seem too thin to really motivate and inspire.  So the question is how do we see it connecting up with other elements of a utopian imaginary?

EA: Let us ask you about one of the terms that may or may not be used by social movements, and that is the term of ‘feminist’.  You are often described as a feminist, and I have the sense that you have no problem with the term.  However there are those who seem to see the term as a barrier, many who were part of the feminist movement in the 70s who now are no longer happy to see themselves described in that way.  I wonder what you have to say about the idea that the term might be problematic.

NF: I am more concerned with the opposite problem.  Everyone claims to be a feminist now.  People like me who have long identified with feminism as a social movement aimed at combating injustices of gender find that we don’t own this term any more.  Others claim the term too, in the service of other agendas.  So, for example, Sarah Palin claims to be a feminist, as do elements of the Christian Right in the United States, the very people who not so long ago ranted and railed against ‘femi-nazis.’  In general, feminist ideas have become so broadly disseminated that they have become part of common sense.  Just about everyone claims to be feminist now, but what does that mean?  And what does that have to do with the social movement that I was part of?

I have recently explored the hypothesis that feminism is part of the new spirit of capitalism, that it has become an ideology that legitimates neoliberalism.  We know that neoliberalism involves the massive entry of women into paid work all over the globe.  What motivates these women?  What gives ethical meaning to their daily struggles?  It seems to me that feminism serves as the necessary moralizing force, at both ends of the spectrum, whether it is the professionals trying to crack the glass ceiling, or the temps, the part-timers, and EPZ workers who undertake wage work not only to earn their living but also in search of dignity and liberation from traditional authority.  If that’s right, then we have the confusing circumstance in which a movement that once posed a radical challenge to capitalism’s androcentrism is now serving to legitimate, even glamorize, wage labor.  And this poses a huge problem for feminists in the narrow sense like me.  As our ideas are disseminated and resignified, we find ourselves facing our uncanny double, whether in the guise of Sarah Palin or Hilary Clinton or Segolene Royal.  If everyone is a feminist now, then “feminism” has become a term like ‘democracy’ that can be used for any purpose, including purposes which run directly counter to gender justice.

EA: If it is the case that the feminist cause has been hijacked by the right how should the feminist respond to that?

NF: First of all, this hijacking is a sign of feminism’s success.  But the experience is not unique to feminism.  Other emancipatory movements, too, find their ideas hijacked for purposes at odds with their own.

EA: The environmental movement for example?

NF: Yes, and this takes us back to our earlier discussion about the public sphere.  Any discourse that gains a certain amount of currency in the public sphere becomes available for articulation to a variety of different political projects.  As feminist discourse becomes mainstream, it become a token in ongoing struggles for hegemony.  Thus, the question arises: who will win the soul of feminism?  Will feminism be articulated to the left or to the right?

And yet, just as neoliberalism may have hijacked some feminist ideals, so its current crisis presents an opportunity.  This is a moment where feminists in the original sense can try to reactivate the movement’s radical emancipatory potential.  We might try to break the spurious links between our critique of the family wage and marketisation, between our critique of welfare-state paternalism and privatisation.  In other words, this is a moment when the “dangerous liaison” of feminism and neoliberalism could be broken.  Feminism could reassert its critique of capitalism’s androcentrism, for example, by reopening the question of wage labour’s proper place in a humane form of life.  We might ask: what role should wage labour play in a modern society?  How should it relate to care and other forms of social participation?

EA: We’re in a time of crisis as you’ve said.  There seem to be very few alternatives being proposed by public intellectuals or anyone else, if you compare it to earlier crises in the 20th century for example.  I wonder what your diagnosis is for this slightly depressing state of affairs?

NF: It is still very early in the crisis.  If you think back to the 1930s, it took quite a long time before a real Left emerged and became self confident and developed a culture and a discourse that could generating alternative ideas.  Today, however, we are facing an historically new situation, given the apparent delegitimation of socialism in the wake of the collapse of communism.  Until ’89 there still seemed to be an alternative to capitalism, but everyone is understandably more agnostic about that now.  I wouldn’t say that we know that there is no alternative to capitalism, but the pictures we had before of what that alternative might be like were much too simple and possibly unworkable.  On the one hand there is a big question mark about political economy — what would the political economy of a just society look like?  On the other hand, both feminism and environmentalism are powerful world-pictures which are now available, and it seems to me that those are both good starting points and . . . well, we all have to get cracking thinking about these things!

Nancy Fraser is Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research.  This interview was first published by European Alternatives on 9 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.  See, also, Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History” (New Left Review 56, March-April 2009).

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