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.

Demands for ‘recognition of difference’ fuel struggles of groups mobilized under the banners of nationality, ethnicity, ‘race’, gender, and sexuality. In these ‘post-socialist’ conflicts, group identity supplants class interest as the chief medium of political mobilization. Cultural domination supplants exploitation as the fundamental injustice. And cultural recognition displaces socioeconomic redistribution as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political strugglefootnote2

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, and many seem to ignore questions of the distribution of wealth and resources and the organization of labour. Fraser cites Charles Taylor’s much discussed work, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition,footnote3 as an example of this one-sided attention to recognition at the expense of redistribution, and I think she is right. Even the paradigmatic theorist of distributive justice, John Rawls, now emphasizes cultural and value differences and plays down conflict over scarce resources.footnote4 Some activist expressions of multiculturalism, moreover, especially in schools and universities, tend to focus on the representation of groups in books and curricula as an end in itself, losing sight of the issues of equality and disadvantage that have generated these movements.footnote5 Some recent theoretical writing by feminists or gay men and lesbians has pondered questions of group identity abstracted from social relations of economic privilege and oppression.

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.