The Conclusion from “The Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late Capitalist Culture” (1989) by Nancy Fraser (in Unruly Practices)

Needs Talk

Let me conclude by flagging some issues that are central to this project but that I have not yet discussed here. In this essay, I have concentrated on social-theoretical issues at the expense of moral and epistemological issues. However, the latter are very important for a project, like mine, that aspires to be a critical social theory.

My analysis of needs talk raises two very obvious and pressing philosophical issues. One is the question of whether and how it is possible to distinguish better from worse interpretations of people’s needs. The other is the question of the relationship between needs claims and rights. Although I cannot offer full answers to these questions here, I would like to indicate something about how I would approach them. I want also to situate my views in relation to contemporary debates among feminist theorists.

Feminist scholars have demonstrated again and again that authoritative views purporting to be neutral and disinterested actually express the partial and interested perspectives of dominant social groups. In addition, many feminist theorists have made use of poststructuralist approaches that deny the possibility of distinguishing warranted claims from power plays. As a result, there is now a significant strand of relativist sentiment within feminist ranks. At the same time, many other feminists worry that relativism undermines the possibility of political commitment. How, after all, can one argue against the possibility of warranted claims while oneself making such claims as that sexism exists and is unjust?

This issue about relativism surfaces in the present context in the form of the question, Can we distinguish better from worse interpretations of people’s needs? Or, since all need interpretations emanate from specific, interested locations in .society, are all of them equally compromised?

I claim that we can distinguish better from worse interpretations of people’s needs. To say that needs are culturally constructed and discursively interpreted is not to say that any need interpretation is as good as any other. On the contrary, it is to underline the importance of an account of interpretive justification. However, I do not think that justification can be understood in traditional objectivist terms as correspondence, as if it were a matter of finding the interpretation that matches the true nature of the need as it really is in itself, independent of any interpretation. Nor do I think that justification can be premised on a pre-established point of epistemic superiority, as if it were a matter of finding the one group in society with the privileged “standpoint.”

Then what should an account of interpretive justification consist in? In my view, there are at least two distinct kinds of considerations that such an account would have to encompass and to balance First, there are procedural considerations concerning the social processes by which various competing need interpretations are generated. For example, how exclusive or inclusive are various rival needs discourses? How hierarchical or egalitarian are the relations among the interlocutors? In general, procedural considerations dictate that, all other things being equal, the best need interpretations are those reached by means of communicative processes that most closely approximate ideals of democracy, equality, and fairness

In addition, considerations of consequences are relevant in justifying need interpretations. This means comparing alternative distributive outcomes of rival interpretations. For example, would widespread acceptance of some given interpretation of a social need disadvantage some groups of people vis--vis others? Does the interpretation conform to, rather than challenge, societal patterns of dominance and subordination? Are the rival chains of in-order-to relations to which competing need interpretations belong more or less respectful, as opposed to transgressive, of ideological boundaries that delimit “separate spheres” and thereby rationalize inequality? In general, consequentialist considerations dictate that, all other things being equal, the best need interpretations are those that do not disadvantage some groups of people vis--vis others.

In sum, justifying some interpretations of social needs as better than others involves balancing procedural and consequentialist considerations. More simply, it involves balancing democracy and equality.

What, then, of the relationship between needs and rights? This, too, is a controversial issue in contemporary theory. Critical legal theorists have argued that rights claims work against radical social transformation by enshrining tenets of bourgeois individualism. Meanwhile, some feminist moral theorists suggest that an orientation toward responsibilities is preferable to an orientation toward rights. Together, these views might lead some to want to think of needs talk as an alternative to rights talk. On the other hand, many feminists worry that left-wing critiques of rights play into the hands of our political opponents. After all, conservatives traditionally prefer to distribute aid as a matter of need instead of right precisely in order to avoid assumptions of entitlement that could carry egalitarian implications. For these reasons, some feminist activists and legal scholars have sought to develop and defend alternative understandings of rights. Their approach might imply that suitably reconstructed rights claims and needs claims could be mutually compatible, even intertranslatable.

Very briefly, I align myself with those who favor translating justified needs claims into social rights. Like many radical critics of existing social-welfare programs, I am committed to opposing the forms of paternalism that arise when needs claims are divorced from rights claims. And unlike some communitarian, socialist, and feminist critics, I do not believe that rights talk is inherently individualistic, bourgeois-liberal. and androcentric – rights talk takes on those properties only when societies establish the wrong rights, for example, when the (putative) right to private property is permitted to trump other, social rights.

Moreover, to treat justified needs claims as the bases for new social rights is to begin to overcome obstacles to the effective exercise of some existing rights. It is true, as Marxists and others have claimed, that classical liberal rights to free expression, assembly, and the like are “merely formal.” But this says more about the social context in which they are currently embedded than about their “intrinsic” character, for, in a context devoid of poverty, inequality, and oppression, formal liberal rights could be broadened and transformed into substantive rights, say, to collective self-determination.

Finally, I should stress that this work is motivated by the conviction that, for the time being, needs talk is with us for better or worse. For the foreseeable future, political agents, including feminists, will have to operate on a terrain where needs talk is the discursive coin of the realm. But, as I have tried to show, this idiom is neither inherently emancipatory nor inherently repressive. Rather, it is multivalent and contested. The larger aim of my project is to help clarify the prospects for democratic and egalitarian social change by sorting out the emancipatory from the repressive possibilities of needs talk.