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  • Recognition, Redistribution and the ‘Postsocialist Condition’
  • Moira Gatens (bio)
Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Postsocialist’ Condition (Routledge, 1997)

Nancy Fraser justly occupies a central position in many of the major debates in contemporary political theory. Justice Interruptus is a selection of influential, previously published essays, the common of thread being the attempt to address justice in both socioeconomic (or redistributive) and symbolic (or cultural) terms. One of the major dilemmas in current political theorizing is the tendency for those who focus on symbolic justice and the politics of recognition to ignore the imp ortance of political economy and correlatively, for those who focus on redistributive justice to fail to attend to the injustice involved in the misrecognition of cultural difference. Redistribution versus recognition, equality versus difference, culture versus the economy, are all, according to Fraser, false antitheses that must be worked through if we are to emerge from the counterproductive divisions that define the ‘postsocialist’ condition. But what is this condition?

On Fraser’s account, the ‘postsocialist’ condition may be characterized by three main features. First, by a marked lack of consensus in left, or progressivist politics, about what would constitute a viable and desirable alternative to our present. Second, class politics and struggles over justice as redistribution have been disrupted, even undercut, by demands for the recognition of group, or cultural, differences. And, finally, the ‘postsocialist condition’ is marked by the dominant position enjoyed by e conomic liberalism, with its claims to have answers to contemporary political problems in the context of globalization, or what Fraser calls “wall-to-wall capitalism”. Fraser positions herself as the diagnostician, or analyst, of this ‘postsocialist’ condition. She presents her approach as critical and interrogative, rather than being caught up in the merely symptomatic play of the surface reflections of present condit ions of life. Fraser’s analyses claim to reveal the “hidden inner logic” (175) of ‘postsocialist’ politics, to expose the “deep structures” at work in socioeconomic and symbolic injustices, and to be working towards a “single comprehensive theory” (189) c apable of dissolving the false antitheses mentioned above.

Considered as individual pieces, each essay is a powerful and compelling intervention into the contemporary political scene: the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case; the deconstruction of the way in which recipients of income transfers are coded as ‘welfare d ependent’; the importance of acknowledging and supporting the multiplicity of publics and counter-publics, central to the survival of democratic politics; and so on. Here, I cannot do justice to the exceptional richness of each essay but will discuss rec urrent themes in order to bring out Fraser’s main concerns and the character of her response to these concerns.

The opening essay, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Postsocialist’ Age”, provides the backdrop for many of the arguments rehearsed elsewhere in the book. Redistributive justice, which aims to redress economic disadvantage, is unlikely to be capable of addressing the cultural disrespect and social degradation experienced by some groups in society. In fact, such ‘surface redistributions’, that leave deep structural economic injustices intact, may have the counter-productive eff ect of creating the very conditions under which some groups become socially differentiated and even despised. In this version of the ‘chicken-and-egg’ argument Fraser observes that mere surface reallocations are, by their very nature, ones that must be ma de repeatedly. “The result”, she argues, “is to mark the most disadvantaged class as inherently deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time such a class can even come to appear privileged, the recipient of special treatment and unde served largesse. Thus, an approach aimed at redressing injustices of redistribution can end up creating injustices of recognition.” (25) This perverse outcome of superficial redistribution fuels the backlash against various marginalized groups (eg. women, people of color) and it receives a good deal of both broad brush and micropolitical analysis in Justice Interruptus .

Fraser’s strategy in this, and other, essays is to combine what she takes to be the worthwhile resources of deconstruction, postmodernism and socialism to argue for the deep structural transformation of economic, symbolic and political life. There are lim its to Fraser...

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