Kampf un Annerkenung

By Elaine James

person photographing themselves in a mirror

The struggle for recognition, Kampf um Anerkennung, was proposed by the German philosopher Hegel (1807). Hegel philosophised that the nature of self-consciousness was the recognition of struggle between two individuals for dominance. Nearly 150 years after Hegel, Hannah Arendt similarly argued in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, that human rights are mediated through others. Arendt touched on concepts of belonging being central to having recognition. Proposing the phrase, “the right to have rights” she formulated the concept of human rights being conferred through nation states recognising citizenship, arguing that “stateless” people therefore had no access to rights. Arendt argued that the process of conferring citizenship status was too important to be left in what she called the ‘relic galleries’ of an outdated political past. Perhaps the plight of refugees and those seeking political asylum would be a current equivalence to her ‘stateless’, floating disconnected from a nation state prepared to confer citizenship, and with it access to protections afforded by human rights conventions. Arendt’s observations about the plight of the stateless provided evidence to her that human beings did not have rights qua human, but, rather, that access to those rights was dependent on membership of a community, a political entity which would provide recognition of those rights and safeguard access to them.

In their argument, Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth rigorously debated recognition of rights. Fraser contended that the dominance of identity politics, the politics of recognition eclipses wider debates about redistribution of resources which are required to achieve a fair and just society. Fraser provides a convincing argument that oppression is multi-faceted, a position in which Honneth finds common cause. However, they differed in their view on how best to tackle this. Honneth advocated for the quality of the relationship between mother and child being the basis on which self-confidence and self-recognition could be achieved. This idea has strongly influenced social work theory and practice. However, I find my self drawn to Fraser, who rejected the reductionist approach of placing self-recognition solely within the social psychology of relationships, a path which runs the risk of victim blaming. Sara Ryan in her blog https://mydaftlife.com/ calls out the repetitiveness with which ‘mother-blaming’ is experienced by parents of children with disabilities. Fraser’s position echoes that of Arendt, reminding us of the importance of mediators in achieving recognition, and of the power that mediators hold over the citizenship-less.

All states which are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008, are required to guarantee disabled citizens the same rights as non-disabled citizens. The Convention was heralded as having achieved a paradigm shift away from persons with disabilities being considered as objects of charity, with health and social care professionals there to rescue or fix them through the medical model. But have these ambitions actually been achieved? As Samuel Beckett put it in his novel Molloy “against the charitable gesture [of social workers], there is no defence that I know of”. This outdated image of the profession needs to be shaken off once and for all. Social work has a unique specialism. That specialism is upholding human rights, recognition of the inherent dignity of all human beings through a global profession with a global definition of purpose. The work of Social Workers without Boarders is testament to a global profession which is not bound by nation states, whose input is not restricted to those who are ‘recognised’ as legitimate to receive state aid. The Rightful Lives exhibition http://rightfullives.net/ suggests that there is likely to be a continuing role for social workers in mediating the progress of recognition of rights.

First published on The Last Quango in Halifax