Identities, conflicts, emancipation

Le 8 mars 2011, le Centre International d’Etudes de la Philosophie Française Contemporaine (dirigé par Frédéric Worms) de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris) organisait une table-ronde avec Axel Honneth, Guillaume Le Blanc et moi-même sur le thème « Conditions et expressions de l’expérience morale. La subjectivation morale des luttes. Autour d’Axel Honneth ».

While I am interested in the relations between struggles for cultural recognition and struggles for social justice, it is not simply from a “theoretical” angle[1]. As well as my academic work, I have held the position of co-director of the Centre for equal opportunities and opposition to racism (Belgium) for the past four years, a public equal opportunities institution established to fight against discrimination, equivalent to HALDE in France. Hence, the issue of racism, integration and the place of cultural minorities in society lies at the heart of our missions. I have also actively participated in two major “national” public debates concerning interculturality:  the Commission du dialogue interculturel in 2004-2005, for which I was the spokesperson; the Assises de l’Interculturalité, which (painfully) finished its work in November 2010. I would like to add that the current Belgian political crisis, which is a crisis of cultural recognition and social justice, is an additional source of reflection.

First of all, I would like to mention the philosophical lessons I have learnt from this institutional experience, which will be the basis of my speech: struggles for cultural recognition (the struggles of “minorities ») can never constitute an emancipatory process for individuals alone; on the contrary, when the protagonists give them autonomy and isolate them from the material configuration that underpins them, they turn into dead ends. I am not saying that the struggles of minorities are neither legitimate nor authentic, but they are in vain and even destructive if they are disconnected from the social stakes.

This claim could be understood as a stance in favour of the arguments defended by Nancy Fraser in her debate with Axel Honneth. But this is not the case. The debate between Fraser and Honneth is situated at another level, which I would qualify as metapolitical: it is a question of knowing whether the claims for recognition must be interpreted within the framework of a global theory of social justice (this is Fraser’s argument), or whether the claims for social justice must be interpreted as claims for recognition (this is Honneth’s argument), in other words, whether the theory of recognition allows us to elaborate a definition of social justice. This debate is fascinating but it is not my problem, in any case, not the one I wish to discuss today.

My question is as follows: how do social and political affects “pass » from the material sphere to the cultural sphere and vice versa? How can we explain the transfers of psychological, moral and ideological investment from one to the other? How can we explain, in particular, this overdetermination of material conflicts by the identity conflicts we are seeing today? And what are the political consequences of this “overculturalisation”?

My working hypothesis is based on a fundamental distinction that I make between subjectivity and identity.

What I call subjectivity is the human being’s power to exist in the unity and plurality of his being-in-the-world, within the three fundamental anthropological dimensions that are life, work and language (i.e.: family relationships, economic relationships and “cultural” or “communicational” relationships). Here, the need (desire) for recognition takes the form of a need (desire) for the participation of subjectivity in the fundamental social mediations of social life. As regards emotional life and kinship, these mediations appear in people’s living environment, in homes; as regards work, in people’s jobs; as regards language, in people’s culture, especially at school. The individual wants to be involved as an active subject in and as part of these fundamental institutions[2].

What I call identity is a “segment” of subjectivity (gender, “race”, origin, ethnicity, religion, language, etc.) which is created through a difference (symbolic or imaginary difference) between other expressions from this same segment (man/woman, Christian/Muslim, homosexual/heterosexual, etc.). This difference is what we call a discrimination. Here, the demand for recognition is of another type: it relates to belonging to a community or a status (in the sense of Max Weber). The individual wants the group or status to which he belongs, and with which he identifies himself, to be recognised as having as much dignity and value as the other reference group(s) – equal dignity and value for women in relation to men, for the allochton in relation to the autochton, for the Black person in relation to the White person, for the Muslim in relation to the Christian, etc.[3].

I am not claiming that the identities are different from the subjectivities; on the contrary, they are actually segments of subjectivity; therefore, they truly express something of our subjective power. But the definitions of subjectification are certainly not the same.

Concerning identity, the individual wants to maintain his difference with other people (since this difference is the foundation of his identity). The subject wants an end to the negative discrimination in the form of the positive recognition of his difference[4]. In short, he is seeking discrimination (= recognition, identification), but positively.

We are now at the heart of the problem of the moral subjectification of the struggle against discrimination; because, in fact, there are two way to understand non-discrimination. If we take the European or national legislation literally, non-discrimination consists of treating individuals without any consideration for their origin, religion, gender, etc., i.e. without taking into account their identity (ethnic, religious, sexual). Within this dimension of subjectivity, the act of recognition of equality (for instance, reinstating a Muslim in his job) will be perceived as the invalidation of his “difference”: the principle of non-discrimination de-identifies him as a Muslim, and invites his colleagues to see him as an employee like any other. But if the players have an identitarist mindset, the same act of recognition will be perceived as a form of positive recognition of his identity as a Muslim.

The same ambiguity can be observed with the so-called issue of “reasonable accommodations” in terms of religion or culture (making adjustments for bank holidays, prayer rooms, halal meals in canteens, etc.). Are these “requests” for reasonable accommodations requests for recognition of identity? The sociological studies carried out under the aegis of the Centre for Equal Opportunities show that in the large majority of cases, the request for the Muslim employee to be able to pray or have an adapted meal is not a request to be recognised as a Muslim (a request for visibility), but, on the contrary, a request for invisibility, if we can put it that way. The employee asks that measures be taken to allow him to work in accordance with his religion, but without being recognised (either negatively or positively) as a Muslim, and without being distinguished from the other employees. The request for reasonable accommodations is therefore situated at the level of subjectivity and not identity[5]. This is why the Centre recommends that companies do not deal with this issue of reasonable accommodation through a religious or cultural prism, but through general, neutral measures (provision of vegetarian meals, and not halal-certified meals; a quiet area, and not a prayer room; breaks for everyone, and not “prayer time”, etc.). Experience also shows that when companies deal with this issue from the point of view of identity (for instance, by seeking the assistance of an imam, favouring measures taken in the name of “cultural diversity”), they often stoke tensions which they thought they had stifled.

This should teach us a thing or two about the notion of “diversity”, which postulates that society would be better if everyone recognised the positive value of everyone else. But such reciprocal recognition of identities is an illusion. Because this request for positive recognition always involves a negative dimension, which consists of requiring the other person to change and diminish his own identity by acknowledging the wrong he has inflicted on the other party, and vice versa. This is what we see with minorities demanding recognition for crimes and injustices committed by the dominant group (colonialism, segregation, etc.), while the dominant group demands that the minorities first recognise its identity (“laïcité”, “republique”, etc.) as the identity of reference (hence the French government’s current view on “national identity”)[6]. But the claims cross each other here without converging, owing to the lack of an object, a common material stake to be discussed between protagonists. What I mean is that if the discussion relates to urban segregation, the housing or education policy, there is room for negotiation and discussion. But if the same issues are considered as questions of identity (if the minorities identify urban segregation with colonial apartheid, and if the dominant group identifies the hostility of the “suburbs” with a refusal of republican values), then the discussion will certainly lead to a dead end.

I would even go a step further by reversing the problem: if issues of identity and ethnicity currently overdetermine material issues, it is because it has become increasingly difficult to ask political questions (for instance, concerning integration) with regard to their concrete materiality. We must certainly exclude the theory of the struggles for ethnocultural recognition having a historical origin, meaning that they had succeeded the social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Honneth is right to harshly criticise a Charles Taylor-like “chronological” illusion on this point. Material claims and assertions of identity are constantly intertwined. But we cannot deny a change of centre of gravity in the political debates from the social to the cultural, the material to identity, and we should certainly ask ourselves why.

My hypothesis is that the psychological investments into identity are proportionally nourished by what Hannah Arendt calls worldlessness, the loss of being-in-the-world, which is more or less what Honneth calls “reification”, and which I personally call “immondialisation” (in reference to “mondialisation” which is, in effect, an “immondialisation”). What does this mean? When the world of life, work and language that forms the concrete tissue of existence collapses, when the fundamental material mediations such as homes, work and school crumble, man tends to invest his affects in a particular segment of his existence (ethnicity, sexuality, genealogy, etc.). In other words, when individuals no longer have a grip on the historico-material stakes of the world surrounding them, they offload onto identities the excess existential fear they feel with regard to a world that is escaping them.

The “Marxist” explanation through socioeconomic determinations is therefore invalid if it means that identities are nothing more than the reflection of social injustice (“identity, the opium of the people”). Instead, the passion for identity is more of a response to the loss of belief in the world, to the rupture of the material link between man and the world. From this angle, precarious populations are not the only ones to overinvest in the struggles for identity – far from it[7]. This overinvestment becomes clear as soon as the conflicts can no longer find a solution in the material field, not because one of the protagonists is dominating the other (this is almost always what happens throughout history), but because he has destroyed the very “environment” in which the conflict took place, because there is not even anymore room for dissensus to argue over the organisation of work, the living environment or school. Since it is not possible to focus on a common ground, conflicts latch onto these partial segments which include cultural identities. When people lose the reference points of a common world that accepts them as concrete subjectivities (life, work, language), they find themselves exposed to one another, i.e. reduced to their visible and differential identity[8].

And yet, trade “immondialisation” corresponds exactly to this case where one of the protagonists (capital) destroys the « environment » of his confrontation with the antagonistic forces of work. As from the 1980s, what Immanuel Wallerstein referred to as the “optimism of the oppressed” was extinguished (the possible projection of subjectivity into the future, the feeling that “tomorrow will be better”, that “our children will have a better life than us”). If identity and interculturality have become such passionate subjects today, it is not due to the increase in migratory flows or the sharp rise of Islam in Europe, but to the gradual dismantling of the social state and the regression imposed on the labour movement. Neoliberalism has substituted collective agreements and the civilisation of work with the ideology of diversity (so well-matched with the “new spirit of capitalism »); it has substituted public policies for insecure populations in general with ethnically segmented management, both on a police level (penalisation of the diasporas) and a community level (through religious or ethnic leaders); in place of the social state’s systems of protection, families are now in debt and migrations are dealt with in a stressful manner.

Under such conditions, the social players cannot even debate the issue of justice anymore, owing to a lack of a common ground of conflict; equal participation in social life has been changed to such an extent that social conflict itself has come impossible, pushing the players to “regress” in some way to a pre-political stage that is, it would seem, almost that of the “dialectics of the Master and the Slave”.

Yet, Hegel himself pointed out that we could only escape from the “infinite evil” of the dialectics of Master and Slave by establishing a common world (the passage of the Subjective Spirit to the Objective Spirit). Philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas believe that such a common world is created when the conditions for communication without restrictions are fulfilled, which supposes an ethical commitment by the protagonists who must abandon the position of protest and struggle to undertake a “decentration” process, of self-criticism in order to accept the other person’s point of view[9]. I think (like Honneth, it seems) that such a common world is actually a sort of continuous creation that constantly feeds on social struggles for recognition. It is in this sense that the conflict is emancipatory and contributes to integration.

In other words, by moving away from the Master / Slave dialectics and establishing a common world, the conflict and the struggle between the protagonists is not eliminated; instead, the psychological struggle and the struggle for identity of the consciences exposed to one another, is substituted with the political struggle of the players committed to producing and transforming their common world. The dominated party’s sought-after “recognition” is thus no longer that of his humiliated identity or of being a victim (“post-colonial”, for instance), but the recognition of his subjectivity as a living, working and speaking human being.  The subjectivation is therefore disidentification, uprooting from the “naturality” of a place or status (“woman”, “allochton”, “homosexual”, etc.) and insertion into a public, common world that the subject helps to modify and refigure.

For our purpose, it would be instructive to see how the public institutions specialising in the fight against discrimination, such as HALDE (France) or the Centre for equal opportunities (Belgium), organise their work: not according to target audiences (defence of the Jewish community against anti-Semitism, defence of the Muslim community against islamophobia, defence of the lesbigay community against homophobia, etc.), nor even according to motifs of discrimination (religion, race, origin, sexual orientation, etc. – except for persons with handicap[10]), but according to scope: work, housing, education, health, etc. The fight against discrimination thus becomes immersed in the material infrastructure of society – the only way to define the structural mechanisms of discrimination, and thus reach the issue of social injustice.

At the same time, I continue to repeat that specific policies against discrimination or integration will only achieve its objectives if it is associated with general social policies in the areas of employment, housing and town planning, healthcare, education and culture. Specific measures such as positive discrimination will not have any effect, other than perverse effects, if they are not crossed with “classic” social measures. There is no point in encouraging the recruitment of people of foreign origin, youngsters from the suburbs or women if it is simply to offer them a fixed-term contract or a part-time job, which will only serve to maintain these “minority” groups in social insecurity.

We should therefore not be surprised if all the debates that have taken place over the past few years on “national identity” and/or the “intercultural dialogue”, have degenerated or have been engulfed: the debate on national identity launched in November 2009 by Eric Besson; the UDC campaign in favour of banning minarets in Switzerland; the questioning of the so-called “multiculturalism model” in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany; the debate on reasonable accommodations in Quebec in 2006-2007; and still more recently in Belgium, the work of the Assises de l’Interculturalité. All these debates were tense, even hateful and sickening. But it is inevitable, from the moment we ask the question in terms of recognition-belonging (« majority »/ »minorities »), and not recognition-participation.

Questioned by the Minister, I recommended that the recent Assises de l’Interculturalité (interculturality conferences) should not be attended by the intercultural community (representatives of various religions, cultural leaders, antiracist militants, etc.), but by a restricted team of social decision-makers in the strict sense (unions, managers of social housing, headmasters and headmistresses, hospital directors, care homes, etc.), who would have been in a position to put ethnic or identity issues back into a concrete material perspective. For instance, we have already seen that numerous supposedly « intercultural » conflicts within companies were nearly always hiding tensions of quite a different nature – between classes, generations, genders, etc. Instead, the steering committee, mainly composed of representatives from “minority” and religious groups, drafted a highly multicultural report that went against everything that can be read today in Europe. But as nice as that may seem, the political effect was disastrous: the debate focused on symbolic anxiety-provoking issues (the headscarf, reasonable accommodations, bank holidays), so much so that the only thing public opinion retained from the exercise what that the government was planning to replace Easter Monday with the Festival of Sacrifice. But undoubtedly, the political leaders were the first to want to avoid the real issue: the crisis of the Belgian social model, and hence the indissociable mechanisms of integration and the fight against discrimination.

My lecture also applies to the current Belgian political crisis. On the surface, the confrontation between the Flemish and the French-speakers is an identity and ethnocultural confrontation. In reality, the real historical stake, just like everywhere in Europe, is the dismantling of the Belgian social model. The Flemish nationalist party, which currently leads the dance, is above all an ultraliberal party that wants to put an end to the remaining mechanisms of social solidarity (for instance, the automatic indexation of salaries). Behind the (Flemish) nationalist claims and (Walloon) regional resistance, there is in fact one of the most classic capital / work conflicts. A rational theory of recognition must never lose sight of this fundamental materiality of the subjectivation of struggles.


[1] As a philosopher, I essentially work on conflict as a factor of emancipation and integration. The global project of the research unit I co-manage with Florence Caeymaex at the University of Liege is focusing on carrying out a radical critique of society in terms of power struggles and power games (following in the wake of Michel Foucault) without renouncing the idea of individual and collective emancipation (“our” Foucault, in short, is therefore closer to Kant and Marx than Nietzsche).

[2] As we know, Honneth identifies three models of recognition: the sphere of primary relationships, where the vector is love, conditioning self-confidence; the legal sphere, whose aim is equality and whose vector is the law, conditioning self-respect; finally, the social sphere, whose vector is solidarity, conditioning self-esteem this time. This grammar of forms of life is not incompatible with the one I am proposing here. Honneth distinguishes moral spheres of Modernity, whereas I am focusing on anthropological dimensions. According to Hegel’s System der Sittlichkeit, I think that ethical life is based on three “transcendantals” : desire work and interaction. Lévi-Strauss also defined society as a triple system of exchange of women, belongings and messages. And life, work and language also correspond to what Foucault refers to as the « three major historical positivities » in Order of Things.

[3] Identities are often created by the crossing of several segments of subjectivity (in our jargon, this is what we call « crossed discriminations »): the most obvious case is that of the « youngsters from the suburbs », to which a stereotype combining 3, even 4 discriminations is associated, on the basis of origin, age, gender – and often place of residence.

[4] This is used by Robert Castel, La discrimination négative. Citoyens ou indigènes ?, Seuil, 2007.

[5] Another example: one of the main requests for reasonable accommodations by employees of Moroccan origin in Belgium is the extension of the summer holidays to allow them to “go home to their country”: a request that is not in the least religious and is situated within the realm of subjectivity and not identity (v° Andrea Rea et Ilke Adam, La diversité culturelle sur le lieu du travail. Pratiques d’aménagements raisonnables en Belgique).

[6] I also take a very critical view of the ideology of cultural “mixing” – an ideology that seems to be a slave to what it is denouncing, i.e., inward-looking identities. Because, by definition, cultural mixes or hybridisation are the fruit of a crossing of identities, which, first and foremost, we are obliged to honour as such. A mixed society is only possible if the “others” remain faithful to their roots. Dialectically, creolisation therefore leads to an even more intense and apparently inoffensive identity reflex, which is experienced as that of the “minority” and “post-colonial” group. The mixed-race notion places the members of non-European diasporas, who are already weakened by a difficult material situation, in an unbearable “double constraint”: either they renounce their identity of origin, and are accused of conceding to the dominant identity; or they retain their roots and are suspected of wanting to isolate themselves in their particularism.

[7] For instance, there are the European middle classes who currently massively adhere to the xenophobic national populism: at the origin of their claim of belonging to a certain identity, there is the feeling of the dispossession of the world following globalisation, the political inability of these middle classes to have a grip on this globalisation.

[8] To use the terms employed by Etienne Balibar in Violence and Civility, the corollary of reducing individuals to the status of useful or useless goods, producing masses of supernumaries (“ultra-objective” violence, as Balibar calls it) is the obsessive fixation on identities and cultures (“ultra-subjective” violence).

[9] Jean-Marc Ferry themed this process of reciprocal recognition in the form of a “reconstructive ethic” which aims to highlight the moments of scission, conflict, separation, alienation (things unspoken, forgotten or repressed), with the intention (Hegelian) that this discovery will allow the players to reconcile with their history, and thus free themselves of the social determinisms (Destin) that weigh on them. The classic example of an act of reconstructive recognition is the responsibility taken by Germany with regard to Nazi crimes. Reconstructive ethics are different from the procedural ethics of Habermas in that they fully assume the dimension of narration. In fact, reconstruction mobilises both narration, since it is a question of giving an account of the tragedy of the history, and argumentation, since this account mobilises the critical (and even self-critical) force of reason. The role of reconstructive ethics is to link the substantial ethics of the good life and the procedural ethics of the just society. The reconstruction would be the “unity” of these two poles – the subjective pole of the player immersed in the history, and the objective pole of legal and moral constraints. “The distinctive feature of reconstructions”, Jean-Marc Ferry summarises, “is to decentralise the narrations, by structuring them through argumentations”. But the identity process is paradoxical because, ultimately, it is “de-identification” (Ferry talks of negative identity): identity is indissociable from self-criticism and decentralisation (Jean-Marc Ferry, L’identité reconstructive, Cerf, 1996).

[10] But, as a matter of fact, being handicapped does not constitute an identity; handicap is directly indexed to subjectivity, which is expressed in the special legal requirement of “reasonable accommodations ».

5 janvier 2014|Articles & Conférences|