American News

The Politics of Recognition vs. Redistribution

Today, we have widespread polarization, mutual recriminations, intense loathing, and a politics of grievances and resentment.
Radical right politics, populists, right-wing populism, Populism, Donald Trump, left wing politics, Liberal left, Marine Le Pen, Germany right wing, Hans-Georg Betz

Marine Le Pen in Paris, France on 3/2/2017. © Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock

May 12, 2021 08:30 EDT

At an earlier stage of my life, I had the great pleasure of spending two years teaching at York University in Toronto, Canada. Unlike the University of Toronto, whose campus looks like Harvard or Yale, York resembles British public universities such as Sussex: modern, functional, but without what in French is called “cachet.” York University also happened to be one of the last genuinely left-wing schools in the Western world, at least in the social sciences. I had colleagues who had actually read Karl Marx — and took him seriously. 

By sheer coincidence, the day I interviewed for a position in the Department of Political Science, York had scheduled a public lecture by Nancy Fraser, a renowned feminist political theorist/philosopher from the New School for Social Research in New York City. The lecture was on the politics of recognition. Given her impeccable left-wing credentials, York was friendly terrain — or so it seemed. I still remember Fraser’s rather stunned expression when confronted with a barrage of attacks by York’s Marxists, who charged her with discounting if not dismissing the central importance of social class. 

White Trash, White Privilege


That was some 20 years ago. Yet ironically, the tension between the politics of recognition and the class-based politics of redistribution is still as pertinent as it was when Fraser theorized it in the late 1990s. In recent years, it has become even more of an issue of vital importance for the future of progressive politics in liberal democracies, not least because of the challenge posed by contemporary radical, right-wing populism.

Social Justice

The questions of both redistribution and recognition are about social justice. Above all, social justice concerns leveling the playing field. This is a point Fraser has never tired of repeating. She has adamantly pointed out that struggles for redistribution are anything but “antithetical to struggles for recognition.” The problem is that, more often than not, one tended to be disassociated from the other. In reality, however, social justice involved both questions of redistribution and of “representation, identity, and difference.” 

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. In the 1980s, the left, by and large, started to abandon their commitment to what once was called the working class and its aspirations. In its wake, as Axel Honneth noted more than a decade ago, “‘equal distribution’ or ‘equality of good’ no longer form its central categories, but ‘dignity’ and ‘respect.’” To make matters worse, ordinary workers not only lost their privileged position in left-wing narratives. They were also increasingly denigrated, their needs and aspirations dismissed, and their values and views tagged as reactionary and retro, an expression of pervasive working-class authoritarianism. 

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I remember a column written by the German satirist Wolfgang Ebert that said it all in a few lines. The article appeared in 1985 in the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit. The text was meant to be taken as what it was: satire on Germany’s post-68 new left, their delusions and disillusionment, which finally ended in the complete disavowal of the proletariat as a revolutionary class. On this reading, if the revolution never happened, it was because “the masses — not to speak of the working class as the so-called subject of the revolution — failed.” 

In fact, Ebert continued, the masses “always fail.” Instead of following their “true interests” or at least listening to their “intellectual leaders,” they preferred to follow the siren calls of consumerism. Ebert’s conclusion: “Who would be stupid enough to risk their neck for these dumb masses?” The German Social Democrats (SPD) certainly didn’t. That’s why they are where they are today. Since the federal election of 1983, their share of the vote has plunged, from 38% to just over 20% in 2017. 

Fast forward to 2011 in France, a few months before socialist Francois Hollande narrowly defeated the sitting president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the second round of the 2012 election. The election was overshadowed by the downfall of socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who for some time had been seen as a serious candidate for the presidency until his aspirations were sunk by sex scandals. 

Terra Nova

The reason Strauss-Kahn is mentioned here is because of his affiliation with Terra Nova, a progressive think tank modeled after the Center for American Progress and charged with “contributing to the intellectual renewal of the Left in France and in Europe.” In 2011, Terra Nova released a strategic paper that essentially advised that the left should forget about French workers. These workers, the authors charged, were no longer concerned with economic and social questions; instead, they had bought into the “cultural issues” promoted by the right. At the same time, they had progressively been seduced by the far-right National Front, both on cultural and socioeconomic questions.

In short, as a highly critical commentary on the Terra Nova report in France’s premier left-wing daily, Liberation, ironically put it, workers were “dirty and nasty” — at least that was the impression one got from reading the paper. If the socialists were serious about winning the 2012 presidential election, Terra Nova insisted, they had to come up with a new progressive subject. Terra Nova suggested a “future-oriented” coalition (“tomorrow’s France”), “younger, more diverse, more feminized.” This was to be a coalition of the culturally progressive and the economically marginalized — except, of course, traditional workers. 

The analysis was apparently heavily influenced by American strategists busily constructing the new or “emerging” Democratic majority — the title of an influential book from 2004. Today, as a recent dissertation on this question demonstrates, this (hitherto still quite elusive) majority consists of the “ascendant” and “rising” American electorate — constituencies that, unlike the traditional white working class, are growing as a share of the overall electorate: people of color, the young and well-educated, socially liberal whites and single women. As Christopher Cimaglio, the author of the essay, pointed out, in this framework, “the white working class often serves as a receding reactionary backdrop to emerging, forward-looking groups: ‘a more highly educated and diverse constituency,’ ‘a coalition of transformation, comfortable with demographic and cultural change.’” 

Political Polarization

The result of this strategy is what we have today: widespread polarization, mutual recriminations, intense loathing on both sides of the aisle, and a politics of grievances and resentment that makes a mockery of one of America’s most sacred notions: e pluribus unum. Shortly before the 2020 presidential election, roughly 80% of registered voters, both Democrats and Republicans, said “their differences with the other side were about core American values.” Around 90% in both camps “worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”

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To be sure, the left’s embrace of identity politics and diversity, together with its somewhat callous dismissal of what in French is called the couches populaires (aka “ordinary people”) seeking to make a decent living, has not gone unchallenged. Just a few years ago in Spain, a polemic with the telling title “La Trampa de la Diversidad” (the diversity trap) became a national bestseller — and provoked a vicious backlash. Among other things, the author, the polemicist Daniel Bernabe, was charged with denigrating the feminist, LGBTQ and ecological causes, primarily for suggesting that the oppression of women was fundamentally rooted in economics — i.e., the capitalist system — rather than purely in sexism, which he considered as just another face of capitalism.

For Bernabe, everything started with Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher managed to reframe economic inequality in terms of individual difference and diversity against a form of socialism that sought to impose “uniformity.” In the years that followed, socialists and social democrats, such as Tony Blair of the UK and Gerhard Schroder of Germany, bought into this narrative — with suboptimal success, to put it kindly.

Recently in Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht, a leading politician of The Left party (Die Linke), provoked controversy with a new book highly critical of the left’s adoption of identity politics. Identity, according to Wagenknecht, has become the pet project of a self-indulgent, left-libertarian, individualistic, urban, cosmopolitan elite — a “lifestyle” politics reflecting the smug complacency of the morally superior, far removed from the mundane material concerns of ordinary workers. The charge implies that if today’s left embrace causes such as Fridays for Future or Black Lives Matter, it is less out of genuine conviction than out of the need to constantly reaffirm their distinctive identity and habitus, promoted as “the epitome of progressivism and responsibility.”

Other critics of identity politics have been even less kind. “Blue Labour” theorist Jonathan Rutherford, for instance, in an article for New Statesman, argued that the decline of the British working class had turned Labour into a “party of the bourgeois left,” espousing what he called the cause of “cosmopolitan liberalism.” This, he charged, is the “culture of the elites,” one that is “deeply divisive,” grounded in identity politics. In turn, identity politics at least “in its libertarian pursuit of self-realisation and its judging and dividing into victim status hierarchies, is corrosive of society.”

Under the influence of cosmopolitan liberalism, Rutherford argued, “progressive and left politics in the 1990s turned away from class politics and solidarity in favour of group identities and self-realisation.” In the process, the politics of recognition turned into a politics of victimization. At the same time, society has moved on. While the postindustrial, postmodern plebs fight over the question of who has been most victimized, the “new revolutionary subject,” the “‘universal educated person’ of urban, higher-educated and networked youth,” is busy conceptualizing a brave new world of material abundance, social harmony and ecological wellbeing — or so I understand what Rutherford is trying to say.

Identity Politics

Others have gone even further, charging that identity politics threatens to undermine liberal democracy. On this view, identity politics has led to a fragmentation of social cohesion, undermined a common sense of belonging, and been replaced by a new type of “tribalism” that has largely benefited the right and far right. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out, identity politics reflects “important grievances.” At the top of the list is the long history of denigration, discrimination and outright violence that various ethnic minorities have been subjected to by the white majority. 

In some cases, however, identity politics has taken on an “exclusive character where people’s ‘lived experiences’” determine who they are. This, Fukuyama said, has “created obstacles to empathy and communication.” One might add that it has done a disservice to the notion of a shared humanity. 

In other cases, the combination of identity politics and political correctness has reached absurd dimensions. Take, for instance, the case of Felipe Rose, the iconic member of the Village People. Rose is the guy dressed in Native American garb, which has exposed him to charges of cultural appropriation and playing to stereotypes. As a critic put it, “Rose’s Halloween-style Indian is the only character [among the Village People] to play on the identity of a living culture.” Dina Gilio-Whitaker, the critic, added: “Why on earth, after American Indians have for decades been successfully waging war against the use of Indian stereotypes in popular culture, is Felipe Rose still parading around on stage in an Indian costume” like a cartoon character come to life? 

The answer is simple. The singer defines himself as of Native American descent (Lakota Sioux) and has done more for America’s indigenous population than many a well-meaning left-wing culture warrior (pun intended). Skeptics might want to watch Rose’s “Trail of Tears” — a tribute to the “eviction” of the Cherokee and other nations from their ancestral lands resulting in thousands of deaths on the way.

Does this mean the left should abandon recognition in favor of a return to an exclusive focus on redistribution? Quite the contrary: As Fukuyama has strongly insisted, the politics of recognition reflects a fundamental human desire for dignity, for being esteemed. Taking his cue from the eminent German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, he noted that “history itself is driven by the struggle for recognition, by the desire of human beings to have their fundamental dignity recognised by other human beings and that modern democracy emerges when equal dignity, not the dignity of the master, but the mutual recognition of equal dignity, is achieved.” 

Michael Sandel, a leading political philosopher and celebrated author of “The Tyranny of Merit,” argues along similar lines. As he wrote in The Atlantic, any “serious response to working-class frustrations must combat condescension and credentialist prejudice. It must also put the dignity of work at the center of the political agenda.” In the book, Sandel cited data chronicling the decline of America’s white working class, many of whom have simply fallen out of the labor market, as if “defeated by the indignities of a labor market indifferent to their skills.” The data comes from Isabel Sawhill’s work on what she calls “the forgotten Americans.”  They are the victims of the kind of “misrecognition” that Fraser has theorized. More often than not, they have given up, both with respect to the labor market and to life itself, succumbing to what Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have called “deaths of despair.”

“White Trash”

These developments are not only highly unsettling. They also drastically demonstrate the central importance of recognition in the current period of hyperglobalization, accelerated innovation and automation, and run-away individualization. Under the circumstances, it is of paramount importance to bestow a modicum of visibility to the ignored and forgotten, to have their existence acknowledged.

Yet this is seldom the case. America’s “white trash” underclass is a case in point. Poor and, more often than not, addicted to opioids, structurally irrelevant as both producers and consumers, white trash epitomizes what is wrong with today’s politics of recognition and identity, laying bare its internal contradictions — if not its inherent hypocrisies. White trash might appear to be an American phenomenon but it is not. As Imogen Tyler has shown, the denigration of the white, socially marginalized underclass is also prevalent in Britain, reflected in the notion of the “chav,” a ubiquitous term of abuse for the white poor. In fact, over the past two decades, “chavs” increasingly became a prevalent comedy television trope, exposing poor whites to ridicule and opprobrium by urban elites.

This suggests that the struggle for recognition, as Fraser has affirmed, is an all-encompassing, comprehensive struggle based on an inclusive notion of hurt and grievances. On this reading, the struggle for recognition and dignity cannot be divorced from the struggle for redistribution or, for that matter, the struggle for equal participation. This, of course, is hardly a new idea. As early as 1918, Max Weber distinguished between three distinct but interrelated foundations of social inequality: resources, power and status. The latter refers to “inequality based on differences in honor, esteem, and respect.” As Stanford sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway has noted, we tend to forget “how much people care about public acknowledgement of their worth.” Yet they tend to “care about status quite as intensely as they do [about] money and power.” They want “to be someone.”

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Historically, this was one of the main selling points of populist leaders, including Juan Peron in Argentina. Peron, who served two terms as president before his death in 1974, accorded workers and the poor and dispossessed “their own voice and a new sense of their relevance.” This was a particular concern of his wife, Evita, who “was instrumental in transforming the sense of identity of the workers and the poor, and in doing so she helped them gain a sense of their own ‘dignity’, as she frequently repeated.”

As Carlos de la Torre, a leading specialist on Latin American populism, has put it, populism is “a politics of cultural and symbolic recognition of the despised underclasses. It transforms the humiliations that the rabble, the uncultured, the unseen, and those who have no voice have to endure in their daily life into sources of dignity and even redemption.” 

Unfortunately, in today’s world, many people are denied the right to be someone. As Senator Bernie Sanders recently noted with respect to rural Americans, “there is not an appreciation of rural America or the values of rural America, the sense of community that exists in rural America.” He added: [S]omehow or another, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America. I think we’ve got to change that attitude and start focusing on the needs of people in rural America, treat them with respect, and understand there are areas there are going to be disagreements, but we can’t treat people with contempt.” 

Unfortunately, this is has happened too often, not only in the United States but also in Europe. Social justice, however, can only be achieved if everyone is brought on board.

Equal Rights

There are myriad examples of how these dimensions of social justice are inextricably linked. Take, for instance, the struggle for women’s equal rights. In Germany, until 1958, women were not allowed — by law — to open their own bank account without the explicit permission of their husbands. In other words, it was the men who disposed of the money women brought into the marriage and the money they earned while married. In the United States, until the mid-1970s, banks could refuse to issue unmarried women a credit card. If they were married, their husbands were required to cosign.  

Germany and the United States are not alone. In 1979, a British general practitioner refused to give former Labour MP Helen Goodman a prescription for contraception on the grounds that she was unmarried. In Switzerland, it took until 1971 for women to be granted the right to vote. Swiss men were largely opposed, as were many Swiss women. The reason why Switzerland agreed to accord women the right to vote was that the country wanted to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. For this to happen, women’s suffrage was a sine qua non, much to the chagrin of Swiss men. In fact, it took until 1990 for the last Swiss canton (Appenzell Innerrhoden) to allow its female citizens to vote. Each of these cases confirmed Simone de Beauvoir’s conclusion that women constituted the “second sex.” No wonder the Vatican added her treatise to the index of prohibited books. 

These examples illustrate the notion that the way in which humans are recognized — or not — has important consequences, material and otherwise. Take the case of gay rights. It took until 1987 for homosexuality to no longer be categorized as some kind of “mental disorder” in the United States. It took three more years for the World Health Organization (WHO) to follow suit. It took another few decades for the WHO to stop classifying gender incongruency as a behavioral and mental disorder. As Patchen Markell noted, “the denigration of non-normative sexualities … helps to sustain the maldistribution of resources ranging from health care to police protection.”

In fact, take the more recent case of “welfare chauvinism,” which has led to attempts by Western European governments to limit access to social benefits for migrants and refugees while favoring the “native-born.” More often than not, the poor do not vote. Why should they? Nobody cares about them anyway.

“Deplorables” in America

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly — here, Fukuyama is right — the political right have, in recent years, hijacked identity politics in the service of division and polarization, driven by resentment and mutual recrimination. A paradigmatic example is the American tea party movement. One of its grievances was that welfare programs went “to ‘undeserving’ immigrants, minorities, and youth” instead of “hardworking” Americans.

An even more outrageous example is a statement made by Idaho State Representative Priscilla Giddings, who recently justified cuts for Idaho’s universities. She claimed that state lawmakers “don’t want funds expended for courses, programs, services, or trainings that confer support for extremist ideologies, such as those tied to social justice.” Giddings, a member of the Republican Party, also opposed a bill in the Idaho legislature that would have released a federal grant designed to support the development of Idaho’s early childhood care and education system. She was particularly incensed that the program was aligned with a nonprofit organization that in its national catalog stated that “whiteness … confers privilege, as does being male” and that the organization “supports a ‘social justice curriculum.’” Giddings did not believe, she stated, “that you are privileged based on your gender or your race.” The bill failed, depriving Idaho’s children of much-needed funds.

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Donald Trump, the former US president, built on this base during his first election campaign. To a large extent, he appealed to grievances not met by the dominant politics of recognition, which has tended to privilege minorities while dismissing the plight of the underprivileged, as long as they happen to be white. In 2016, he made restoring dignity to American workers a central trope of his speeches. When Hillary Clinton famously called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” he responded that, for him, they were “hard‐working American patriots who love your country and want a better future for all of our people.” But above all else, Trump said, they were Americans, “entitled to leadership that honors you, cherishes you, and defends you.” He added: “Every American is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect in our country.” In the election, around two-thirds of white voters without a college degree voted for Trump.

There can be no doubt that in recent decades, the question of recognition and dignity has become central in the politics of advanced liberal democracies. A prime example is the notion of multiculturalism, which presumes that all cultures are equal but different. In the process, the question of economic justice has taken somewhat of a back seat, to the detriment of those who have been struggling to keep afloat in an atmosphere of rapidly increasing economic uncertainty.

One result has been an upsurge in support for political parties. Such parties have been astute in exploiting widespread popular resentment in the service of an exclusionary nativist notion of deservedness based on ethnicity or cultural compatibility. Unfortunately, too often the left have given up on their traditional electoral base, leaving the field wide open for the pied pipers of the radical, populist right. The radical right have promoted themselves as the advocates of ordinary people, claiming to give them a voice and a modicum of visibility and a sense of empowerment.

Pandora’s Box

The success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the regions that comprise the former East Germany is a case in point. As Jennifer Yoder, a professor at Colby College, recently suggested, support for the AfD in Saxony and Thuringia — strongholds for the party — is to a large extent the expression of a “revenge of the East.” As she pointed out, it reflects a profound sense among easterners of “not being taken seriously,” of never being asked what they think.  At the same time, it illustrates the perception “that one’s own status now and in the future is at risk.” It is this combination of the subjective experience of a lack of recognition and materially-related anxieties with regard to the future that has proved a powerful motivation for supporting a political party that purports to speak for both the mental state and the interests of the eastern German population.

Germany is hardly a unique case. The claim to take ordinary people seriously, to give visibility to the forgotten and invisible has been a major selling point of radical, right-wing populists — from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump. In its election program for the 1985 election, the National Front in France declared that the “dignity of the French people” was one of its priorities. This was at a time of profound disillusionment among French workers over President Francois Mitterrand’s radical reversal of economic policy — aka tournant de la rigueur — of 1983.  Above all, rigueur meant austerity and subservience to Germany’s stringent monetary policy, which left French workers in the cold. Hardly surprising, in the years and decades that followed, many of them found a new home in Le Pen’s National Front.

It might seem that the politics of recognition and diversity has opened Pandora’s box. To a certain extent, this is true. There is no good reason to recognize the suffering of ethnic, sexual and religious minorities at the hands of the majority, while dismissing the suffering of significant parts of the majority. White trash, as I have previously argued, might be white, but it is still dismissed and denigrated as “trash.” In this case, white privilege not only becomes meaningless, but it serves as an insult, adding to denigration and misrecognition, to use Fraser’s term.

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Hardly surprising, the “deplorables,” to use Clinton’s term, overwhelmingly came out in support of Trump, who, as Clinton suggested, “lifted them up.” To be sure, Clinton meant that Trump reaffirmed their sexist, racist and homophobic views. Yet it could also mean that those who voted for Trump were — perhaps for the first time ever — given a sense that they existed, were “visible” and that they counted.  

Le Pen, after being elected as the leader of the French radical, populist right, made the politics of recognition central to her project. In 2011, a few months before the presidential election, she promoted herself as the candidate of “la France des invisibles,” of all those citizens who never merit being mentioned, who are forgotten, who are — as she put it — “des triples riens.” The notion is an allusion to the triple-A ratings bestowed by international agencies on the creditworthiness of states — the main obsession, or so Le Pen maintained, of France’s political and economic elite.

Le Pen failed to advance to the second round of the presidential election, which ended in a duel between Sarkozy and Hollande. In 2017, she made it to the second round but lost to Emmanuel Macron. Yet Le Pen’s politics of recognition had clearly hit a nerve, as did her adoption of a socioeconomic project that promised to expand the French welfare state; though this was under the proviso that the expansion would only be for the French.

Same Boat

The French case is neither unique nor limited to the radical, populist right. In Denmark, for instance, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, a Social Democrat, has advanced similar propositions, many of them adopted from the country’s far right. In today’s world, it appears that both recognition and redistribution only work if they are associated with a large dose of exclusion. Unfortunately, “identity politics” has turned into a zero-sum game. More often than not, the result has been more resentment and even less willingness to listen to the other side. The remarks by State Representative Giddings is paradigmatic of these trends. This kind of politics can only exacerbate social tension and increase polarization, in the process diminishing chances for moving forward.

A progressive politics based on an honest assessment of the multiple crises we face today can only succeed if it includes all sectors of society, independent of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and material circumstances. It might sound a bit trite, but we are all sitting in the same boat. It would be a tragic mistake to throw some passengers overboard for the simple reason that they are deemed not to belong. 

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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