Andy Blunden June 2004

The problem of status orders

A number of different writers are addressing themselves to a problem in understanding the dynamics of modernity which may be described as the problem of different kinds of status order.

There are three kinds of status order active in bourgeois society.

(1) Firstly, there are the multiplicity of cultural-historically constructed orders of status including gender, “race,” ethnic/linguistic origin, education and taste, sexuality, age and family seniority. Each of these status orders have a different historical origin and trajectory, and are instrumentalised and transformed or “trumped” by other status orders. In bourgeois society, notwithstanding the fact that these forms of subordination exist, they are increasingly regarded as illegitimate.

(2) Secondly, there is the status conferred by ownership of capital. This is the characteristic status order of bourgeois society and thrives precisely on the myth of formal equality, i.e., on the denial of status ordering, based as it is on the accumulation of capital through the exchange of equivalents between free and equal agents.

(3) Thirdly, there are the functional status orders implemented in the form of “positions” rather than the people who occupy positions, including the top-down line-management hierarchies of private companies and bureaucratic apparatuses and the political hierarchies of political organisations and institutions, usually based on upwards delegation and voting. Here a person exercises a right of limited subordination over another person, contingent on and relevant to their appointment to a certain position in a political/functional hierarchy. Such hierarchy is generally not viewed as a form of subordination at all. In general, functional status constitutes subordination if it is ossified or if it expresses or objectifies status subordination generated elsewhere.

Ethical politics emerges in the intersection of different status orders and the antagonism between social movements challenging different status orders.

For liberalism, the problem is simply manifested in the form of “public values,” and liberal political and ethical theory concern themselves only with the social processes forming these values and the problem of managing the resulting conflicts. All these theories are characterised by the objectification of human beings; that is, they view values and orientations as “objective” and amenable to analysis by social theory.

Within the social justice movements themselves, the question takes quite a different form; the aim here is to overthrow and/or transform status orders which generate injustice; in particular, the problem of reconciling the conflicts that arise, not only between status orders, but between the struggles to transform these status orders, are practical questions of political strategy, which challenge deeply-held ethical orientations. This is because social justice movements, properly so called, come to these problems as subjects.

It is to the nature of the subject that resolution of these problems must go. Social theory has objects; ethics has subjects.

A status order does not necessarily generate claims of injustice. The right of a manager to direct to activity of those they supervise, for example, may not be the basis for someone to feel that they are not being treated as they ought to be treated. Likewise, inequalities of wealth do not very often generate claims of injustice so long as extreme wealth does not grant someone power intruding into the functional/political hierarchy and extreme poverty deny someone the opportunity to participate fully in social life.

Claims of injustice arise either because the economic or the functional/political hierarchy is giving expression to status orders which do not belong there (big business influencing legislation, an Old Boy getting an appointment not justified on merit, or poor people being excluded from social life due to lack of education), or because a status order (such as gender, race or culture) is under challenge, something which pre-supposes the existence of a competing status order (for example, a challenge to the gender order arising from the impact of changes in economic and social life.)

It is this multiplicity of status orders and the conflicts between them which is characteristic of modernity and corresponds to a multiplicity of subjectivities, principles which form identity, legitimise hierarchies and are objectified in institutions. In pre-modern times, apart from foreigners and vagrants, everyone was located at some point within a single ubiquitous status order, and so long as people behaved in accordance with the requirements of their position, and people were treated as they ought to be treated, this status order was not the subject of claims of injustice. Likewise even today, so long as managers, political representatives and others located within a functional/political hierarchy behave in a way appropriate to their position, the implicit relationships of subordination are not generally the subject of claims of injustice.

Every subject has its own way of legitimating its status order and necessarily challenges the status order of other subjects. A status order can therefore be called into question and its principle of status ordering de-legitimised, thus becoming the focus for claims of injustice. In fact all historically significant claims of injustice have their source in the penetration of the ordering principle of one subject into that of another, either de-legitimising it or distorting it or instrumentalising it.

Conversely, there exist a plethora of theories critiquing or explaining society; in particular, different theories have an orientation to critiquing or rationalising specific ordering principles. Critiquing or rationalising a status order entails not just a body of theory, but invariably a social movement. The problem which is challenging us nowadays is the problem of reconciling quite different critiques of the existing orders. In particular, the “old” labour movement-based critiques of the maldistribution of power and wealth (critique of political economy) which aimed for destruction of this status order and its replacement by a functional/political order, and the “new” social movements which exposed and continue to attack the various forms of cultural status ordering, relying on a “recognition theoretic.”

Still other social movements, prominent in the earliest period of the rise of the workers’ movement and again more prominent as the tide of “identity politics” has subsided, critique the status orders inherent in the functional/political order; these movements are usually perceived as “anarchistic,” as they aim to rid the functional/political status order of all forms of subordination.

The problem is thus to work out the appropriate approach to theorising these quite different status orders. Should a recognition-theoretic be adopted to theorise maldistribution of power and wealth (Honneth) or a distribution-theoretic to theorise the non-politico-economic status order (Bourdieu) or should we adopt either a recognition theory or a distribution theory according to the issue at hand, but pay attention to the interaction between the two (Nancy Fraser)?

Attractive as the prospect of unification of the theoretical approach may be, it must be remembered that to adopt a “master theory” is tantamount to the subsumption of the different social movements under the dominant paradigm of just one, a kind of colonisation. Critique is not just critique; it is also the unifying principle of a social movement.

Of the three writers cited, I think Nancy Fraser has been most successful in bringing out the real problems in relations between different critiques and social movements. However, despite her declaration for “perspectival dualism,” the proposal to adopt “parity of participation” as an ethical metric which has traction across all social justice movements, is to locate the master critique in the now-rising pro-democracy movement critique of the functional/political order, and this move does in fact have the capacity to unify the different critiques and the different social movements.

The appropriate critique for the pro-democracy movement is the critique of the subject. I maintain this because the task of the pro-democracy movement is to demonstrate how individual, universal and particular can be brought into proper relation with one another, expressing both positive freedom (for self-realisation) and negative freedom (from oppressive constraint). Consequently, it is best placed to tackle the unification of distinct social movements without subordinating one to another. The subject is also the common origin of political economy and the multiplicity of status orders.

“Parity of participation” after all, means the right to subjectivity, the right of individuals to participate in a social subject. The principle of universal suffrage has long been exposed as a fiction of parity of participation. The continual expansion of rights (noted by Honneth) from civil to political to social rights, expresses the move towards making the right to participate in social life concrete.

Subjectivity is a lost concept in modern social theory, however, swamped as it is by various forms of objectification of human life in theory, and by capital itself in actual social life. Not only does capital operate as an extramundane force, but those powerful subjects which exist (large corporations, governments, international bureaucracies) act independently of the individuals they “represent,” responding if at all, only to the abstract representations of mass opinion in the market, elections, etc..

Further, because of the “end of ideology,” the construction of subjectivity can no longer rely on great ideals and principles (racial harmony, peace, women’s liberation, national independence) and new subjectivities have to be built on the basis of “alliance politics”: ephemeral, instrumental, transient forms of subjectivity, built around specific projects.

The problem of poverty for example, lies beyond the scope of what can be achieved by redistribution. The poor are not just underpaid, they are excluded; poverty is in essence not a problem of a lack of money (or even of education) but lack of subjectivity. Even to achieve redistribution requires intervening on one’s own behalf.

Complete success in all the emancipatory critiques of misrecognition, would still leave the majority of the world in abject poverty and exclusion as a result of the action of capital. The overthrow of capital, however, doubly presupposes the resolution of the problem of organisation, firstly to emancipate us from capital, and secondly to emancipate us from the forms of subordination inherent in the political/functional order, something which cannot be achieved simply by ridding organisations of distortion by culturally-constructed status subordination and the influence of money.

What is implied then, is the re-expression of the notions of inequality, misrecognition, and status subordination in the terms of the categories of subjectivity – a task which presupposes sensitivity to the divergent critiques of society expressing the aspirations of different social movements.