Hypatia 14.1 (1999) 126-132
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Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition. By Nancy Fraser. New York: Routledge, 1997.
It is not news that the U.S. Left has been suffering political paralysis. What is notable, and perhaps hopeful, is that recent assessments are returning to the same telling symptom—the disconnection of cultural politics from political economy—that has been the banner of social theory and activism for almost two decades. The major contribution of the essays that comprise Nancy Fraser's Justice Interruptus is their attention to this situation, which she diagnoses as "postsocialism." While the addition of one more "post" to the gathering catalog of postals circulating now is distressing, what the term postsocialism signifies seems right. For Fraser, postsocialism refers to a series of related symptoms of the languishing Left: the absence of any credible vision of an alternative to the present order, the failure to connect a politics of identity to a politics of equality, and, what is really the context for these developments, a resurgence of economic liberalism. Fraser's main concern about the current political landscape is the shift in the grammar of political claims-making from a socialist political imaginary that is primarily concerned with the problem of redistribution of wealth and resources to a politics of identity in which the central problem of justice is cultural recognition (Fraser 1997, 2). Her suggestion for a way out is that neither a politics of redistribution nor a politics of recognition alone is adequate for meaningful social change; rather, both are needed. Eschewing historical explanation of why these two forms of social justice are integrated, Fraser instead offers the more pragmatic thesis that in practice they are always intertwined and reinforce one another dialectically. In a footnote, she reminds us that the "interimbrication" of the two is a leitmotif in all of her work (34, n. 8).
Justice Interruptus is based on essays Fraser wrote and published between 1990 and 1996. The chapters treat a wide range of issues—the family wage; the recasting of the relationship between private and public spheres by particular historical events (the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings is one example); the history of the category of "dependency" as it has affected debates on welfare in the U.S.; and, the critical frameworks of leading feminist theorists (Iris Young, Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Carole Pateman). While the problem of postsocialism's interruption of justice does not shape every chapter, [End Page 126] it is the book's recurring refrain, and Fraser's endorsement of a "bivalent" or "bifocal" vision that encompasses both a politics of recognition and redistribution informs her analysis throughout. For that reason, I will pay special attention to this core argument.
The postsocialist condition Fraser diagnoses is both an effect of the hegemony of two decades of neo-liberalism and the legacy of the New Left. Never a coherent organized front, the New Left emerged out of struggles in Europe after World War II to come to terms with the theoretical rigidity and political abuses of an overly economistic, Stalinist marxism and (in the U.S. as well) out of the demands of social subjects—women, blacks, and eventually lesbians and gay men—whose interests, for many, did not seem to be adequately represented in traditional socialist politics and theory. Debates over how to explain the relationship of culture to political economy, over the adequacy of the base-superstructure model of classical marxism, over the extent to which cultural forms like the media are independent or actually shape economic relations raged in the early phases of the New Left. The consequent theoretical attention to ideology, to the social construction of race, gender, sexuality—and more recently to ethnicity and nationality—opened up new and important areas of social life to critical examination, but they often did so at a cost. In tandem with social movements organized around these axes of identity, social theory increasingly came to focus on cultural politics, and gradually attention to the cultural construction of identities was completely dislocated from any connection to...