Recognition and the market: independence, wealth and equality.

Author:O'Neill, John
Position::Features - Essay

Culture, economy and recognition

An examination of recent political thought might suggest that the very topic of this article--recognition and the market--is an odd one. Recognition has been treated primarily in cultural terms independent of traditional problems in political economy. This treatment has been part of a shift in focus in recent political and social theory which has been marked by an increasing emphasis on questions of cultural recognition and misrecognition over more traditional problems of justice in the distribution of economic goods.

The theoretical shift reflects a wider change that has taken place in social and political practice, which has itself seen a turn from social class to an identity politics defined across dimensions such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and nationality. Both theoretically and practically, there has developed a politics of recognition centred on identity, on the ways in which different groups in society have been culturally devalued. Within the egalitarian tradition of politics, this identity-based approach to recognition has had its critics. Nancy Fraser, for example, suggests that the identity model of recognition has led on the one hand to a reification of group identities and on the other a marginalisation and displacement of traditional questions of distributional justice (Fraser, 1995; 2000; 2003). This marginalisation has taken place in decades marked by growing economic inequality.

However, while Fraser is critical of the identity model, her own account of the relation of a politics of recognition to a politics of distribution inherits the assumption that recognition should be understood primarily as a matter of culture, independent of the traditional distributional concerns of political economy. She distinguishes two dimensions of social justice: 'a dimension of recognition, which concerns the effects of institutionalised meanings and norms on the relative standing of social actors', and 'a dimension of distribution, which involves the allocation of disposable resources to social actors' (Fraser, 2000, 117). The two dimensions of justice are mapped onto an analytical distinction between two social orders: the dimension of recognition is concerned with 'socially entrenched patterns of cultural value, of culturally defined categories of social actors--status groups--each distinguished by the relative honour, prestige and esteem it enjoys vis-a-vis the others'; the distributive dimension is associated with 'the economic structure of society, hence to the constitution, by property regimes and labour markets, of economically defined categories of actors, or classes, distinguished by their differential endowments of resources' (Fraser, 2000, 117).

Fraser is careful to claim that 'redistribution and recognition do not correspond to two substantive societal domains, economy and culture' (Fraser, 2003, 63), but rather are different analytical perspectives 'that can be assumed with respect to any domain'. However, her assumptions about the nature of classical distributive arguments in the socialist tradition of political economy assume that the tradition treated distribution as a matter of access to material resources independent of recognition. Her own account of the nature of recognition and redistribution shares the cultural focus of the identity model she properly criticises.

It is this treatment of distribution and recognition that I want to question in this article. It distorts the history of both socialist and liberal thought. Issues of recognition were at the heart of the arguments in political economy about the defensibility of market economies.

From the liberal perspective, markets themselves are understood as spheres of mutual recognition. While Hegel's account of recognition has been the starting point for recent identity accounts of recognition, his own discussion of recognition articulates this liberal position. It is a view that he inherits from the classical political economists, most notably Adam Smith. At the same time, both Smith and Hegel acknowledge particular pathologies of recognition in commercial society: the social invisibility of the poor, the divorce of recognition from its proper object, and the absence of limits on the pursuit of goods desired from appearance divorced from real worth.

Those themes are taken up in classical socialist political economy. Within the egalitarian tradition these form the basis for an argument that equality in the distribution of resources is a condition for those forms of recognition that track the proper objects of recognition. A number of egalitarian distributive arguments turn on the conditions for mutual recognition.

Forms of recognition and misrecognition, of respect, humiliation and social invisibility were central to debates in classical political economy about the acquisition and distribution of goods in economic life. These classical arguments are not just of historical importance. They remain relevant to contemporary problems of recognition and its failure in the economic domain. Within the spheres of work, for example, questions about social recognition are central to debates around the differential rewards that different kinds of work attract, the effects on health and life-expectancy associated with the place of individuals in work hierarchies, and the social invisibility of many of those involved in care work, both private and public. Some of the themes in the classical debate are also echoed in the discussion of environmentally unsustainable and socially corrosive forms of consumption driven by desires for differential recognition.

The treatment of recognition as matters of identity or status that are worked out primarily in the realm of culture is apt to impede an understanding of these problems. So also is an understanding of distributive justice as a matter only of differential access to material resources. There are good contemporary grounds for looking again at the arguments concerning recognition within economic life which were at the centre of the classical debates in political economy between liberals and socialists.

Markets as spheres of recognition

This theme of markets as spheres of mutual recognition is developed in Hegel's account of civil society in the Philosophy of Right. Hegel's discussion of the master-slave relationship in the Phenomenology of Spirit has been particularly influential in recent identity-based approaches to recognition (Hegel, 1967; 1987). The...

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