Why listen to Nancy Fraser?

Issue 

BY ANDY BLUNDEN

Anyone who has participated in organising broad campaigns and protests will know that on many issues people split in two along very similar lines: on the one hand, people coming from the various social movements or young people brought up in the same traditions; and on the other hand, people coming from the workers' and socialist movement. The two groups work together, but have very different ideas of justice and even on how to make decisions and delegate responsibilities. People get on with each other as best they can, but the differences never go away, and misunderstandings are frequent.

The Victorian Peace Network invited leading critical theorist Nancy Fraser to tour Australia in July/August, because of her work on the interaction between these two groups. Fraser is a Professor of Politics and Social Science at the New School University in New York, and will be speaking in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Byron Bay from July 26 to August 4.

Fraser advocates a "dual perspectival" approach to understanding history, which takes account of both the class structure, rooted in political economy, and the status order embedded in the culture. Further, along each "axis", there are two diametrically opposite strategies: one affirmative (using the welfare state to equalise wealth and mainstream multiculturalism to equalise recognition), while the other aims to transform the conditions underlying the differences themselves (socialist revolution to abolish wage labour and deconstruction, blurring group differences).

These different strategies can all be successful, but they can also work against each other: "integration" and "self-determination" cannot be pursued at the same time, for example.

Fraser brings us a whole range of insights into how action taken to rectify injustice along one axis can have unintended side effects along other axes. For example, a targeted welfare payment rectifies maldistribution, but reinforces the stigma attached to recipients.

It is these kinds of insights, which we get from Nancy Fraser's work, that provide an opportunity for people coming from very different movements to better understand one another and develop strategies that really work. It also helps us understand how "identity politics" has marginalised the struggle against poverty in recent decades.

If people don't agree on what constitutes justice, how can they join forces? Fraser proposes that whether you come from the workers' movement or from the "new" social movements, the claim for "parity of participation" in social life can be recognised as a legitimate claim.

Parity of participation would not lead to a radical egalitarianism, but it would require that no-one is too low paid and that people have a say in their own jobs; it would also require that women not be debarred from participation in paid work due to child-rearing responsibilities.

These are questions of vital interest, not only to socialists, but also to all the people we are working with in the broader social justice movements. Fraser's tour is an opportunity to look at some ideas to help build a broad social justice movement that can genuinely challenge the neoliberal hegemony.

For details of the tour, visit <http://ethicalpolitics.org/nancy-fraser/index.htm>.

From Green Left Weekly, July 6, 2005.
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