Have theorists of justice forgotten about political economy?footnote＊ Have we traced the most important injustices to cultural roots? Is it time for critical social theory to reassert a basic distinction between the material processes of political economy and the symbolic processes of culture? In two recent essays, Nancy Fraser answers these questions in the affirmative.footnote1 She claims that some recent political theory and practice privilege the recognition of social groups, and that they tend to ignore the distribution of goods and the division of labour.
Fraser proposes to correct these problems by constructing an analytic framework that conceptually opposes culture and political economy, and then locates the oppressions of various groups on a continuum between them. With a clear distinction between those issues of justice that concern economic issues and those that concern cultural issues, she suggests, we can restore political economy to its rightful place in critical theory, and evaluate which politics of recognition are compatible with transformative responses to economically based injustice.
Fraser’s essays call our attention to an important issue. Certain recent political theories of multiculturalism and nationalism do indeed highlight respect for distinct cultural values as primary questions of justice,
Nevertheless, I think that Fraser, like some other recent left critics of multiculturalism, exaggerates the degree to which a politics of recognition retreats from economic struggles. The so-called ‘culture wars’ have been fought on the primarily cultural turf of schools and universities. I see little evidence, however, that feminist or anti-racist activists, as a rule, ignore issues of economic disadvantage and control. Many who promote the cultivation of African-American identity, for example, do so on the grounds that self-organization and solidarity in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods will improve the material lives of those who live there by providing services and jobs.
To the degree they exist, Fraser is right to be critical of tendencies for a politics of recognition to supplant concerns for economic justice. But her proposed solution, namely to reassert a category of political economy entirely opposed to culture, is worse than the disease. Her dichotomy between political economy and culture leads her to misrepresent feminist, anti-racist and gay liberation movements as calling for recognition as an end in itself, when they are better understood as conceiving cultural recognition as a means to economic and political justice. She suggests that feminist and anti-racist movements in particular are caught in self-defeating dilemmas which I find to be a construction of her abstract framework rather than concrete problems of political strategies. The same framework makes working-class or queer politics appear more one-dimensional than they actually are.