Judith Butler’s essay is welcome on several counts.footnote1 It returns us to deep and important questions in social theory that have gone undiscussed for some time. And it links a reflection on such questions to a diagnosis of the troubled state of the Left in the current political conjuncture. Most important, however, is Butler’s commitment in this essay to identifying, and retrieving, the genuinely valuable aspects of Marxism and the socialist feminism of the 1970s, which current intellectual and political fashions conspire to repress. Also exemplary is her interest in integrating the best insights of those paradigms with defensible strands of more recent paradigms, including discourse analysis, cultural studies, and poststructuralism, in order to understand contemporary capitalism. These are commitments I wholeheartedly share.
Nevertheless, Butler and I disagree. Our most important disagreements—and the most fruitful for discussion—turn on how precisely to realize this shared project of reclamation and integration. We hold divergent views of what precisely constitutes the enduring legacy of Marxism and the still relevant insights of socialist feminism. We also diverge in our respective assessments of the merits of various poststructuralist currents and in our respective views of how these can best inform social theorizing that retains a materialist dimension. Finally, we disagree about the nature of contemporary capitalism.
In order to clear the way for a fruitful discussion of these issues, I want to begin by disposing quickly of what I take to be the red herrings. Butler conjoins her discussion of my book, Justice Interruptus, to a critique of a group of unnamed interlocutors whom she calls ‘neoconservative Marxists’. Whatever the merits of her critique of this group—a question I shall return to later—her strategy of using it to frame a discussion of my work is unfortunate. Despite her disclaimers to the contrary, readers could draw the erroneous conclusion that I share the ‘neoconservative Marxist’ dismissal of the oppression of gays and lesbians as ‘merely cultural’, hence as secondary, derivative, or even trivial. They might assume that I see sexual oppression as less fundamental, material, and real than
I, of course, believe nothing of the sort. On the contrary, in Justice Interruptus I have analyzed the current decoupling of so-called identity politics from class politics, the cultural Left from the social Left, as a constitutive feature of the ‘postsocialist’ condition.footnote2 Seeking to overcome these splits and to articulate the basis for a united ftont of the Left, I have proposed a theoretical framework that eschews orthodox distinctions between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ oppressions, and that challenges the primacy of the economic. In the process, I have posited both the conceptual irreducibiliry of heterosexist oppression and the moral legitimacy of gay and lesbian claims.
Central to my framework is a normative distinction between injustices of distribution and injustices of recognition. Far from derogating the latter as ‘merely cultural’, the point is to conceptualize two equally primary, serious, and real kinds of harm that any morally defensible social order must eradicate. To be misrecognized, in my view, is not simply to be thought ill of, looked down on, or devalued in others’ conscious attitudes or mental beliefs. It is rather to be denied the status of a full partner in social interaction and prevented from participating as a peer in social life—not as a consequence of a distributive inequity (such as failing to receive one’s fair share of resources or ‘primary goods’), but rather as a consequence of institutionalized patterns of interpretation and evaluation that constitute one as comparatively unworthy of respect or esteem. When such patterns of disrespect and disesteem are institutionalized, for example, in law, social welfare, medicine, and/or popular culture, they impede parity of participation, just as surely as do distributive inequities. The resulting harm is in either case all too real.