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 class oppression and that I wish to subordinate struggles against heterosexism to struggles against workers’ exploitation. Finding me thus lumped together with ‘sexually conservative orthodox’ Marxists, readers could even conclude that I view gay and lesbian movements as unjustified particularisms that have split the Left and on whom I wish forcibly to impose left unity.

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.

In my conception, therefore, misrecognition is an institutionalized social relation, not a psychological state. In essence a status injury, it is analytically distinct from, and conceptually irreducible to, the injustice of maldistribution, although it may be accompanied by the latter. Whether misrecognition converts into maldistribution, and vice versa, depends on the nature of the social formation in question. In pre-capitalist, pre-state societies, for example, where status simply is the overarching principle of distribution and where the status order and the class hierarchy are therefore fused, misrecognition simply entails maldistribution. In capitalist societies, in contrast, where the institutionalization of specialized economic relations permits the relative uncoupling of economic distribution from structures of prestige, and where status and class can therefore diverge, misrecognition and maldistribution are not fully mutually convertible. Whether and to what extent they coincide today is a question I shall consider below.

Normatively, however, the key point is this: misrecognition constitutes a fundamental injustice, whether accompanied by maldistribution or not. And the point has political consequences. It is not necessary to show that a given instance of misrecognition brings with it maldistribution in order to certify the claim to redress it as a genuine claim for social justice. The point holds for heterosexist misrecognition, which involves the institutionalization of sexual norms and interpretations that deny participatory parity to gays and lesbians. Opponents of heterosexism need not labour to translate claims of sexual status injury into claims of class deprivation in order to vindicate the former. Nor need they show that their struggles threaten capitalism in order to prove they are just.