‘Poverty, Inequality and the Critical Theory of Recognition’ by Gottfried Schweiger (ed) reviewed by Thomas Klikauer, Nadine Campbell

Poverty, Inequality and the Critical Theory of Recognition

Springer Press, Cham, 2020, ix+321 pp., £ 89.99, € 99.99
ISBN 9783030457945

About the reviewer

Thomas Klikauer (MAs, Boston and Bremen University and PhD Warwick University, UK) teaches MBAs and …


About the reviewer

Nadine Campbell holds a PhD from the University of Sydney and has been teaching both undergraduate …


Edited by Gottfried Schweiger, the authors of this volume wrote on poverty and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory’s latest endeavour: recognition theory. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory began in the 1920s as a philosophical project that was neither Stalinist nor social-democratic. It may well be true that the French had a real revolution (1789) and the Germans had a philosophical revolution.

Working in the traditions of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, the Frankfurt School quickly established itself as a centre of progressive, philosophical, and sociological thinking during the 1920s. Soon, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse became the leading figures. After their return to post-Nazi Germany, a young Jürgen Habermas joined them and became a leading figure.

Habermas marked the linguistic turn. Upon his retirement, critical theory moved towards an old favourite of Hegelian philosophy, namely recognition theory with Taylor’s Politics of Recognition (1994) and Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition (1995). Honneth argues that even before we engage in Habermas’ communicative action, we – as human beings – must first recognise each other as equal participants in the communicative dialogue. Failing this, four forms of negative recognition emerge (Klikauer 2016):

  1. Misrecognition occurs when mutual and equal recognition fails because of structural settings that encourage asymmetric power relations.
  2. Non-recognition occurs when one side deliberately and purposely makes a conscious decision not to recognise the other. It happens in, for example, officially sanctioned forms of unequal treatment of citizens and employees. 
  3. De-recognition occurs when one side moves from recognition to non-recognition, allowing them to deliberately de-recognise others. Officially sanctioned forms of de-recognition happen, for example, through the de-recognition of trade unions. 
  4. Pathological mass-recognition occurs when there is an engineered over-identification between leader and follower. It is achieved through party ideology as well as through officially sanctioned laws and policies. In management, it takes the form of corporate policies and official company statements promoting corporate leadership. 

The poor are seldom recognised as equals and hence fall into the categories of negative recognition. In his introduction, Schweiger argues that recognition theory enables us ‘to understand, explain, and evaluate the world we live in’ (p. 1). He also argues that so far, recognition theory has been a ‘blind spot’ (p. 2) in research on poverty. What is needed is to bring ‘recognition theory closer to the material and economic reality of modern capitalism and the reality of billions of people living in poverty and suffering from it’ (p. 2). One is inclined to say; wherever there is capitalism, there is misery and poverty.

Because of the asymmetrical power relationships between the poor and those who cause poverty – capital and those who administer poverty – the state, the poor are misrecognised. Once someone is pushed into poverty through unemployment, for example, she or he often becomes de-recognised by friends, society, the state, and the media. As long as the poor exist, the three key assumptions of Honneth’s recognition theory come into effect. These are (p. 5):

  1. The importance of recognition for human beings and their moral values;
  2. The institutionalisation of recognition in social orders; and
  3. The struggle for recognition as the driving force for social change and progress.

Commonly, most authors of the volume agreed that poverty means ‘living on less than 60% of the equalised median income’ (p. 13). The 60%-rule describes relative poverty which is poverty relative to others. By contrast, there is also absolute poverty which can mean starvation (Madden 2000). For five million children, the latter means that they will die before reaching the age of five (p. 14). This is unlikely to change as longs as ‘global public policy is driven by the ideology of neoliberalism’ (p. 16).

To some extent, relative poverty applies to the working poor as well. Esther Neuhann shows this when arguing that ‘the exploiter does not recognise or respect the exploited person’ (p. 40). On absolute poverty, she emphasised that ‘a human only concerned with the search for basic material goods that secure the preservation of her body, is not recognisable as an equally free being’ (p. 51). She concludes with, the most ‘radical forms of dehumanisation (e.g. slavery…) do more than mistreat another’ human being (p. 52).

Bernardo Ferro argues correctly that ‘for Hegel, poverty [is] a form of social alienation’ (p. 59). As a consequence, ‘the elimination of poverty requires a more profound social transformation’ (p. 61) than those proposed by social-democratic welfare states. For Hegel, capitalist ‘markets must be regulated, in order not to degenerate into dangerous sources of inequality’ (p. 74). Hegel was not a communist because he supported the capitalist market; he was not an anarchist because he supported the Prussian state; and he was not a socialist. Perhaps, Hegel’s politics were more in line with a type of social-democracy favouring a Scandinavian style welfare state with a comprehensively regulated capitalist market (Klikauer 2013 &. 2015; Westphal 2019).

Like Gustavo Pereira, Hegel too would argue that poverty is damaging to a ‘minima of dignity’ (p. 89). Hegel might even agree with Dylan Rohr who correctly outlined that Marx and Engels saw a positive outcome in nineteenth century bourgeois capitalism, as it liberated peasants from the backwardness of rural life (p. 108). Today, Trump cements the backwardness which he is highly likely to abuse as ‘white trash’ (p. 108) while simultaneously promising to take on their plight. Donald Trump’s lies have already worked in 2016 when 72% voted for Trump (in mostly rural US states, the so-called red states) compared to 24% who voted for Clinton in 2016. The key differences between the red and blue states are that: 

Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorces, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrolments. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states. And, red states suffer more in other highly important but little-known ways, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution (p. 117)

Virtually, the same can be said about the Coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the red states harder than blue states (Frey 2020). Undeterred, people in the red states have been labelled hillbillies and hobos. It is not surprising to find that Donald Trump utilises such feeling of neglect and abuse for his unsavoury politics. Abuse like this constitutes not only misrecognition but also disrespect violating Honneth’s four dimensions of respect (p. 134),

  1. A person respecting herself alone;
  2. A person respecting herself in the respect she shows to others;
  3. A person respecting herself because of the respect others extend to her; and 
  4. A person respecting herself in her contribution to arrangements where people respect each other.

Beyond that, Schweiger distinguishes between non- and misrecognition, on the one hand, and disappointed expectations, enduring denial, lack of predictability, and long-term suffering, on the other hand (p. 145). Many of these are linked to the five ’causes of poverty [namely] labour precarisation; inter-generational transmission of disadvantages; dismantling of social welfare; public humiliation; and epistemic alienation’ (p. 157). The term “precarisation” refers to Deranty’s as well as Standing’s work (Deranty 2008; Standing 2016). Public humiliation and epistemic alienation, for example, is caused by corporate media describing the poor ‘as lazy, as welfare queens, as anti-social, as dumb’ (p. 158). More than anything, it is the corporate mass media that makes the poor believe that they are to be blamed for being poor.

Even worse than that is the fact that ‘2.2 billion people are living in multi-dimensional poverty’, as Renante Pilapil notes (p. 165). Corporate media in rich countries do a lot to engineer ‘misrecognition’ that asphyxiates the poor in ‘crippling self-hatred’ (p. 167). This also encourages the division between the global south and the global north and the failing of ‘interstate recognition’ (p. 183) which is the ‘misrecognition between states’ (p. 183).

A rather unexpected highlight of the entire collection is Monica Mookherjee’s “The Harms of Global Poverty as Misrecognition” in which she argues that Honneth’s recognition approach can lead to a ‘de-politicising’ (p. 209) of critical theory. She correctly says, ‘in opposition to Honneth, we believe that existing recognitive interactions are always structured by material conditions’ (p. 209) advocating ‘re-politicised psychology of misrecognition’ (p. 209). Rather appropriately, Mookherjee emphasises, ‘If critical social theory is to retain its aims of emancipation, it should struggle against its own tendencies to underrepresent forms of suffering which cannot be expressed through dominant terms and concepts’ (p. 209).

The very raison d’être of critical theory is the struggle to end domination and the struggle for emancipation. Emancipation is a term that is essential to critical theory but strangely absent from Schweiger’s volume on “Poverty, Inequality and the Critical Theory of Recognition”. To further the traditional goals of critical theory (Horkheimer 1937), Mookherjee suggests the writing of French critical theorist, Emmanuel Renault, when she argues rather insightfully that ‘Renault provides a productive antidote to the ambiguities of Honneth’s theory’ (p. 210).

Unfortunately, Schweiger’s edited volume on “Poverty, Inequality and the Critical Theory of Recognition” does not provide an overall conclusion to answer the key question of any conclusion, namely, “what can we learn from all this?” Still, the volume offers an interesting application of Hegel, Taylor, and Honneth’s recognition theory to the issue of global poverty. While the volume stipulates insightful debates on the mis-, non-, and de-recognition of poverty, it also issues a valuable critique of recognition theory. Mookherjee is correct when arguing that recognition might divert our attention away from the material conditions that create poverty. On a more theoretical level, her critique suggests that recognition theory exposes the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory to the danger of losing track of the raison d’être of critical theory which is ending domination and supporting emancipation – this remains precisely what needs to be encouraged given the current levels of global poverty and inequality.

25 September 2020


  • Deranty, J.P. 2008 Work and the Precarisation of Existence European Journal of Social Theory vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 443-463
  • Frey, W. 2020 COVID-19's summer surge into red America sets the stage for November's election https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/09/11/covid-19s-summer-surge-into-red-america-sets-the-stage-for-novembers-election/
  • Honneth, A. 1995 The Struggle for Recognition – The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts Cambridge: Polity Press
  • Horkheimer, M. 1937 Traditional and Critical Theory Critical Theory - Selected Essays translated by O'Connell, M. J. et al., 1972, (New York: Herder)
  • Klikauer, T. 2013 Hegel on Profits, Poverty, and Politics Radical Philosophy Review vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 789-799.
  • Klikauer, T. 2015 Hegel's Moral Corporation Basingstoke, Palgrave.
  • Klikauer, T. 2016 Negative recognition – Master and slave in the workplace Thesis Eleven vol. 132, no. 1, pp. 39-49.
  • Madden, D. 2000 Relative or absolute poverty lines: a new approach Review of Income and Wealth vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 181-199.
  • Standing, G. 2016 The precariat, class and progressive politics: A response Global Labour Journal vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 189-200.
  • Taylor, C. 1994 The Politics of Recognition Multiculturalism – Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Westphal, K. 2019 Hegel's Civic Republicanism (New York: Taylor & Francis)

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