Crises and Experimental Capitalism: An Interview with Nancy Fraser

Sarah Stein Lubrano and Johannes Lenhard, Apr 11th


In early March, King’s Review editors Sarah Stein Lubrano and Johannes Lenhard sat down with Nancy Fraser to continue a discussion begun over lunch the day before. Fraser was visiting Cambridge from the New School of Social Research in New York, where she is Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics. Her earlier writings are about feminist theory and contemporary social and political thought, and she is currently working on three different volumes that address the all-encompassing state of ‘crisis’ we seem to be living through today. It is this topic that we particularly wanted to reflect on.

Kings Review: Over the last couple of years, many people have written about “the crisis”. They have come from the perspectives of critical theory, Marxist thought and more technical economic realms. The books you are currently working on engage with these scholars in a way that seeks to go beyond a selective understanding of the notion of “crisis”. Can you tell us more about what you mean by this? What is missing in existing accounts?

Nancy Fraser: The problem is that most of these writings accept the standard view that the economy is a special, self-contained system, which must be understood technically, in its own terms, without reference to the surrounding institutions and social practices on which it depends. They ignore some important presuppositions of capital accumulation: for example, the unwaged carework without which waged labor could not exist; also nature’s capacity to sustain life and supply the energy and material inputs for commodity production; and the public powers that capitalism needs to secure private property, enforce contracts, and regulate economic interaction more generally. The standard approaches obscure all these indispensable background conditions of the economy. They treat the economy as a self-subsisting system that obeys its own laws. As a result, they mistakenly think they can analyse the crisis “economistically”, without reference to social reproduction, ecology, or politics. It’s no surprise, I guess, that mainstream economists take this view. But it is also assumed by the lion’s share of those who claim to practise critical political economy, including many Marxists and Keynesians. That’s more unexpected – and more disturbing.

My approach is different. I start from the observation that the current crisis is multidimensional: that it encompasses not just economy and finance, but also social reproduction, ecology, and politics. Most of us appreciate the ecological strand, which we know in the form, for example, of global warming. Many of us also sense what feminists have a called a crisis of “care”, as public welfare provision is curtailed and women are increasingly recruited into wage labour, squeezing the capacities available to maintain families and communities. Then too, few would deny that we are facing a crisis of politics insofar as our political institutions seem incapable – for non-accidental, systemic reasons – of taking even the most elementary steps to solve those problems – or indeed to prevent a new outbreak of financial crisis.

My hunch is that these are not separate crises, unfolding side by side, but inter-imbricated aspects of a general crisis. If that is right, we need a broader perspective for understanding it. A technical-economic perspective will not suffice. So I am now trying to develop a multidimensional conception of crisis, which relates the foreground dynamics of the capitalist economy to their background conditions in capitalist society.

KR: .  In a short article in the Guardian in September last year, you describe a whole set of assumptions that – for want of a better term – capitalism makes about social reproduction and how these assumptions have been described differently by feminists. You make the point that capitalism was over the years able to appropriate this critique. Capitalism was able to turn it around in a way so that it has become part of the capitalist endeavour. Is there a way around this appropriation?

NF: My Guardian essay concerns an important aspect of this crisis complex. On the one hand, I am criticising mainstream economic thinking for ignoring the economy’s non-economic background. And here I am drawing in part, as you rightly noted, on the work of socialist-feminist theorists, who developed the category of “social reproduction” as the necessary counterpart to “economic production”. As I understand it, this category includes housework, childcare, eldercare, etc, but also a host of other “socio-symbolic” activities that maintain social bonds and shared understandings. And I fully endorse the feminist view that social reproduction constitutes a necessary background condition for a capitalist economy, even as the latter systematically devalues it. But then, too, I also endorse the eco-socialist claim that a capitalist economy depends on inputs from nature, which it does not adequately replenish. Finally, I think capitalism free-rides on public powers, which it both needs and tend to degrade. My work on crisis builds on (and indeed connects!) all three of these critical insights. So yes, it is deeply indebted to feminist theory, even as it also integrates gender dynamics with those of politics, ecology and economy.

Nevertheless, and here’s the other side, I have criticised the current political orientation of mainstream feminism. As I see it, dominant currents of the feminist movement have entered into a dangerous liaison with neoliberal capitalism. They have adopted thin, market-friendly ideas of gender equality, understood in terms of women’s meritocratic advancement within the existing corporate structure, which is defined by men’s life-patterns. A good example is Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling self-help book, Lean In, which advises women to double-down in the workplace and play hardball. This feminism accepts the mainstream view of economy and hopes to empower women to compete effectively within it, while ignoring the background conditions that enforce their disadvantage – above all, the unequal gender division of carework. In fact, gender equality requires transforming the whole relation between economic production and social reproduction. And that in turn requires public recognition of the value of carework.

This dangerous liaison benefits neoliberalism far more than feminism. Today, feminist ideas are being bent to capitalist purposes, made to supply a good part of the legitimating rationale for the new regime of accumulation that we call neoliberalism, which depends heavily on women’s waged labour. Consider the ironic fate of the feminist critique of the male breadwinner/female homemaker family model, which assumed that the man would be paid a “family wage” (a wage sufficient to support his entire household). When it was developed in the 1970s, this critique was part of a political project aimed at validating the social importance of unpaid carework. The idea was to overcome gender domination by reorganising that work, sharing it equitably among women and men, and ensuring its public support. Today, however, the feminist critique of the family wage is serving quite different ends: it is used to legitimate women’s participation in wage labour. Far from affirming the value of carework, it validates wage labour. So an idea that once criticised the constitutive androcentrism of capitalism now functions precisely to ratify it!

The problem is partly that the critique emerged at a moment in history when the family wage model was being superseded, like the Owl of Minerva flying at dusk. We can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the eruption of second-wave feminism coincided with the massive global movement of women of every class and ethnicity into paid work. That development is double-edged. On the one hand, it represents women’s authentic striving for relative autonomy, more power in the household and a desire to be free of personal subordination. On the other hand, it represents a new capitalist strategy of accumulation, aimed at restoring declining profit rates. It coincides, moreover, with a general worsening of conditions for the working class as a whole. Households today have to put in many more hours of wage labour in order to maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed in previous decades; no single member commands a family wage. The result is depressed wage levels, precarious employment, a decline in the capacities available for necessary carework, and terrible stress. But neoliberal ideologues celebrate all this as a feminist achievement!

This is a case of a more widespread phenomenon in which what were once critical streams of thought now take on a “market-friendly” character. In our time, there has been a narrowing of the great ideals of emancipation that social movements like feminism have fought for. The market imaginary has colonised our thinking. Perhaps this process is partly rooted in the collapse of socialism and the apparent absence of an alternative. But there is no question in my mind that the feminism that is hegemonic today is a shrunken version, a mere shell, of its earlier, emancipatory self.

KR: I wonder whether the process you are describing is not what was to be expected all along from the highly creative and flexible economic system we call capitalism. Isn’t it part of the logic of capitalism that it works in exactly this way, appropriating even critical ideas and repurposing them for its own ends? In which case, isn’t it just logical that this should happen with movements like feminism? The financial crisis has been described by some commentators as a rather inconvenient but non-lethal obstacle for capitalism. What we are seeing now is even a strengthened form, despite the critiques that the financial crisis gave rise to. So can critical ideas that present radical alternatives to capitalism ever really make a difference? Is there a need for theoretical counter-forces against the status-quo even though they might become watered down and even incorporated?

NF: There are several points here, I think. First, the fate of the feminist family-wage critique, which I just outlined, is quite ironic. It is a case in which a critical idea is instrumentalised, used to legitimate a transformation of the very capitalist system it originally aimed to criticise and to create new profit opportunities. Another example is microfinance. Microfinance is typically justified on the ground that small scale lending to women in poor rural regions can overcome poverty and gender hierarchy. The anti-poverty rationale is quite specious, however. Keep in mind that the enthusiasm for microfinance arose just as international agencies like the IMF were pressuring postcolonial states to adopt neoliberal policies – to open their markets, slash social spending, privatise their assets, and generally retreat from developmental policies, including large-scale job creation. At just that moment, these agencies begin to tout microcredit as a way of circumventing red tape and “empowering” women. But this sort of small-scale lending in the service of petty entrepreneurialism cannot possibly substitute for macroeconomic policies aimed at overcoming poverty. As an anti-poverty policy, it’s just not serious! Which severely limits the benefits it provides to women. So here’s another case of the instrumentalisation of feminist ideas to legitimate policies that are antithetical to feminist values. And of course, microcredit is also a profit opportunity. Hundreds of for-profit lenders are now making a great deal of money out of it, just as for-profit banking institutions are capitalising on “green finance”, conducting a brisk and lucrative trade in strange new commodities, such as carbon offsets and environmental derivatives. In general, these interests are making lemonade out of the lemons of the various strands of crisis – ecological, financial, social reproductive, and political.

What conclusion should we draw from this? I would not go as far as you just did. The struggle is not inevitably doomed in advance. It’s true that capitalism is a formidable system, highly inventive and opportunistic. Yet there have been historical periods when opposition to it became very widely and strongly held. In those moments, opponents mobilised and forced major structural changes in the existing form of capitalism. We are now at a moment, I think, when the need for such structural transformation is palpable, keenly felt by many people. It is well understood that a bit of tinkering here and there is not going to solve the very deep structural crisis we find ourselves in. And so there is a hunger right now for a kind of critique that clarifies the situation, integrating the different aspects of the crisis – financial, ecological, political, social – and pointing us in a direction where we can think more fruitfully and more deeply about how to address them. So I reject the idea that resistance can only necessarily strengthen the system.

KR: You argue for a dissemination of views  and the reconstruction of a “new common sense”. When it comes to the financial crisis you just mentioned, one might argue that these alternatives have been explored at least in the practical sense. You were living in downtown New York and I imagine you had at least some contact with the Occupy protests. You have doubtless heard about the groups in Spain and Greece doing very similar things. Do you think these new social movements presented a viable alternative?

NF: I actively participated in Occupy Wall Street in New York. That movement, like its counterparts elsewhere, was a fantastic eruption of radical desire and militant commitment of a sort we haven’t seen in a long time. Nevertheless, I’ve been very struck by how quickly the air went out of the balloon, by how fast these movements demobilised and how little they left behind in their wake. There’s an interesting lesson here: despite all of our talk about social media, cybercommunication and the virtual, it was the ability to hold onto public space that actually gave these movements traction, media attention, and a palpable presence in society. Once the powers-that-be reclaimed those spaces and evicted the Occupiers, the protests quickly collapsed.

Why was that? It had a lot to do, I think, with the hold of neo-anarchist ideas on an influential stratum of youthful activists. Certainly, Occupy Wall Street – let me just stick to the New York case, which I know the best – was a very complex movement, which won the support and participation of a broad cross-section of society, including unions, public sector workers, and progressive NGOs. But when push came to shove, the ethos of the movement was shaped by the perspective of a stratum of youthful activists, who were in a position to live fulltime in Zuccotti Park. This group, which included a good number of my own students, were among the most dedicated shock troops; they stayed until the last minute, fought the police, and continued to attend the shrinking “General Assemblies” long after they were evicted from the Park. They were quite wonderful, really; yet it was thanks to the influence of their neo-anarchist worldview, I think, that the movement did not seriously confront the organisational question of how to institutionalise itself as a presence in a relatively enduring and ongoing way. They failed to appreciate that the moment of direct action is by definition ephemeral. It’s heady, it’s exciting, it is the greatest high in the world, but if you are serious about making change you have to give some thought to the question of how – and it’s a word that many of my students hate – to institutionalise these energies.

So, I think in the end, there are some negative lessons to be learned from OWS. If you are suspicious of all institutions, if you try to work entirely outside the circuits of public power, rather than trying to change and use it, what you will do is strengthen private power, i.e. corporations. I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding of power among the neo-anarchists who dominated Occupy. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate experimental social projects, communes, cooperatives, and other efforts to build a “social and solidary economy.” But these are not a substitute for global financial controls, for instance. The private powers that rule today are far too big and too deeply entrenched to be overcome by local communal experiments. The belief that direct action alone suffices is seriously deluded.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why neo-anarchism appeals today. It is a response – fully understandable, albeit inadequate – to political frustration. Hit hard by the crisis, southern Europeans and others are seeing that it doesn’t matter whom they elect: it’s the bankers who run the show. So there’s a sense that the political system itself is broken, that you can’t address the crisis by working inside it. All you can do is go to the streets. This is completely understandable and not off-base as a diagnosis of the colonisation of the political system by the banks and corporations. But absent serious consideration of how we might build an alternative, it becomes a periodic blowing off of steam, an impotent expression of anger and frustration.

KR: To take what you said at face value, you’re arguing that one can’t work without the state and without politics. You can’t just set up something completely outside when it comes to making a difference for society as such. Does that hold true in the economic arena? Should it be our goal, at least at the moment, to push capitalism to the point where it is much more considerate in how it treats people? If so, can this goal only be reached by having the radical alternative of anarchism in the political sphere and critical theory in the sphere of ideas?

NF: My official position is agnostic: I am agnostic as to whether the crisis can be adequately resolved by some very deep and robust restructuring of capitalism, as opposed to a true no-capitalist alternative, something that ends capitalism and replaces it with something else. It’s very hard today to have any absolute clarity about that. Earlier generations thought they had clarity about it, but it turned out they were mistaken. So my strategy is to sidestep the question, at least for the time being. I propose, in other words, to organise around some fairly radical demands (such as the socialisation of finance, the restructuring of the relation between economic production and social reproduction, a global carbon tax, etc.) and then see whether and to what degree capitalism – in some reformed version – is capable of meeting them – hence whether and to what degree we must go beyond it. I propose, in other word, an experimental approach.

But I, too, think that having a radical vision is important – whether a vision of a restructured capitalist or of a non-capitalist or socialist alternative. You are right: radical views do have an orienting and motivating character. They play a major role in sustaining people throughout the long and difficult process of social transformation.

Still, I have my doubts as to whether anarchism qualifies as a radical political vision. Of course, it portrays itself as radical; and I support many of the specific practices it tends to privilege: especially practices that incorporate elements of direct democracy into political institutions, such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. But, as I said before, without robust large-scale public powers, you cannot deal with problems such as global warming. I don’t see how a complete dissolution of these powers could possible help anyone except large capitalists and big corporations. Some things require large-scale coordination, relative centralisation, even the use of coercion. All of that needs to be democratically organised, made accountable to those affected, and subject to public scrutiny. I would be for electing people to be on the boards of central banks and recalling them the second they do anything that betrays the public trust. But that still leaves us in the realm of political institutions and large-scale public powers.

KR: Let’s briefly turn away from current events to fundamentals of your intellectual work. You’ve talked about the importance of having a single space where different kinds of justice-related claims can come together, but of course there are theorists who say this is impossible. Some people say, for example, that women’s rights don’t fit in the arena of human rights, or that they won’t fully be recognised as such, and so another category has to be created, like “rights of women”. What makes you more optimistic about intersecting claims?

NF: This question makes me think of the Gramscian idea of hegemony and its Habermassian counterpart of the public sphere. Seen from those perspectives, it not so important whether or not a given phenomenon is seen as requiring a separate category. What’s more important is that emancipatory ideas not be confined to separate enclaved arenas where only those who already believe in them are exposed to the arguments for them. What’s important is that they be widely disseminated in the struggle to change hearts and minds across the board. Democratic – even semi-democratic – change doesn’t happen without that. Unless you’re prepared (as I am not) to countenance social transformation by putsch, which is to say, a seizure of power by a few enlightened souls while most people still believe all the garbage they believed before, then there’s no alternative to contesting the official common sense of the time in public spheres.

In the case of women’s rights, it’s not so important to me whether or not we end up with an official codification of human rights that has a special category of women’s rights as opposed to other rights. It’s more important that everybody come to understand the limitations of the way that human rights have been traditionally understood. That interpretation privileges rights of private individuals against tyrannical state power. As a result, it leaves out such quintessential gender-specific violations as domestic violence, sexual assault, female genital mutilation, acquaintance rape, systematic rape in warfare, etc. What’s important, again, is to convince a broad swath of public opinion that we have to think differently about human rights.

Beyond that, there’s also a need for some critical reflection about the role that the idea of human rights is playing now. At one level, the salience of this idea is a great achievement. At another level, however, it goes along with some serious distortions. One problem is that human rights are applied selectively, invoked to legitimise the “military humanism” of (especially) the United States, which is driven by other interests. Another is their moral and legal character: in appealing to human rights, we effectively substitute a quasi-juridical notion for a genuinely political vision of a good society.

KR: It seems to me looking at your work, and also some of the claims you’ve made, that you’re very interested in creating a synthesis between ideas that other people have claimed are oppositional. The most common example is postmodernism and critical theory. Do you think this is a philosophical concern you have in and of itself, as a statement about how things are framed as opposites when they are not, or do you think it’s a side effect of some other philosophical concern?

NF: That’s interesting. It stems in part, I think, from my generational experience as a 1968er. People like me, who came out of the New Left, inherited a certain kind of Marxism that we found too restrictive, too orthodox, and we sought to develop alternative Marxisms that could make visible forms of domination and social suffering which orthodox paradigms occluded: issues of gender and sexuality; colonialism and post-colonialism; ecology and political exclusion and marginalisation. It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that to take in these matters requires not the rejection, but the reconstruction, of Marxism. What was needed, in my view, was (and is) synthesis: a synthesis of Marxism, feminism, ecological critique, postcolonial critique, etc. And I was never intellectually satisfied by proposals for a simple division of labour: use Marxism to analyse the economy, use feminism to analyse the family – that so-called “dual-systems theory” was always wrong, in my view. Economy and family (production and reproduction) are part and parcel of the same capitalist social formation; they developed in tandem and can only be understood jointly, in their mutual imbrication.

Then, too, I have had some more specific experiences of the need for synthesis. My first intellectual home, so to speak, was Hegelian Marxism and Frankfurt School critical theory, which I discovered as an undergraduate philosophy student and intended to pursue in graduate school. In the mid seventies, however, I kept hearing people talk about Foucault. I started reading him and was absolutely riveted – such a great writer, and such brilliance. So here I was again, faced with two extraordinarily compelling paradigms. It was inconceivable to me that I should reject one of them in the name of the other – especially since each seemed to me to have its blind spots as well as its insights. So it naturally occurred to me to integrate them, to use the insights of one to correct the blind spots of the other.

I do realise it’s getting repetitive at this point, that I keep doing this same little dance step, over and over and over again: “redistribution and recognition, it’s not an either/or, but a both/and!” I’m aware that I have this intellectual tic. But I’m not willing to give up paradigms that I find valuable for social critique. I’d rather, when necessary, reinterpret them, including in ways that go against their own self-understanding.

A good example is deconstruction. I have no patience for deconstruction understood as a Weltanschauung that claims to furnish an ethics, a politics, a philosophy, everything you need. But as a neat little tool for doing ideology critique, it’s absolutely brilliant. And so I have found ways to integrate it with other things, including things (like Habermassian thought) to which it was often seen as allergic. Making unauthorised use of deconstruction, I have effectively challenged the official version of it.

KR: Returning to politics, what can the role of universities and academics be in providing the alternative views that we spoke about before? As you describe there has to be this other space where people can produce critiques. We were talking about practical level, but what can academics do? This question is something that the King’s Review has been thinking about recently and public engagement is also something we are trying to do ourselves. In another recent interview with the KR, Sidney Brenner described how self-absorbed academia has become. The problem for many scientists in particular is that whole process of constant publication and peer review. Constant academic pressure does not leave much time for public engagement. What can be the role of academics themselves and what can magazines such as N+1, Jacobin or the King’s Review do?

NF: Well, here’s another example of that famous tic. I believe that the answer must be “both/and”. Critique needs to find homes of both sorts: both spaces within academia and spaces outside of academia. It is important that some of these spaces are self-financed and not dependent on tenure and peer review. The magazine n+1 is a good example. That “outside” strategy is especially attractive now, given the increased corporatisation of the University, which threatens its ability to provide spaces for public critique. But one should also fight to create or defend critical spaces within the university, as I suppose you are doing here with the King’s Review.

But again, history matters. In my generation, the humanities and social sciences were significantly re-made by people coming out of the New Left who entered the academy and became professors. They created gender studies, “history from below”, “subaltern studies”, LGBT studies, black liberation studies, new protocols for reading texts of all kinds politically. In some cases, these scholars changed established disciplines, by bringing in perspectives developed through social struggles occurring outside the University. At that time, the boundaries between “inside” and “outside” (universities and social movements) were very permeable; ideas flowed back and forth with relative ease. Later, however, that changed and the university became more self-absorbed, disconnected from the surrounding society. Even those areas of study born out of political ferment became increasingly specialised, academicised and esoteric.  Of course, there was the odd individual here and there, heroic figures like Noam Chomsky, and other lesser-known people. Throughout much of this period, I had the good fortune to teach at the New School for Social Research, which is a whole institution dedicated to public engagement. And we struggled to keep alive the critical tradition during unpropitious times. Fortunately, the situation seems to be shifting again. It looks to me as though we are entering a period in which there will again be an easier, more permeable relation between the “inside” and the “outside.”

KR: What do you tell your students – the kinds of students who want to be on the street – do you think they’ll be best served by trying to get tenure-track jobs, or do you sometimes aspire on their behalf towards something else?

NF: I have a broad range of students. Some are clearly highly gifted and committed researchers, who are likely to become professors. Others come from abroad intending to return to their home-country in order to help build a new society there. Some of these want to work in government – a few actually succeeded to the point of holding cabinet level ministerial appointments in leftwing Latin American governments which, truth be told, did not last long. Still others want to work in public-interest journalism, development, human rights, and so on. So there’s no advice I can give that would fit them all. In regard to those students who were active in protests like Occupy, our faculty was quite supportive. We didn’t penalise people for missing classes. I can remember semesters myself where I never showed up in a classroom in 1968-69. I have to say that in retrospect I learned more on the street and occupations than I learned in many of my classes. I experienced deep ways of thinking that stayed with me. So I think it’s wonderful that students have those opportunities.

KR: It was cheaper in your time.

NF: You’re absolutely right. The sixties were a time of relative prosperity. None of us in the New Left ever worried “where’s our next meal going to come from?”. We just took such things for granted, living as we did in the richest country in the world, before the oil crisis, before de-industrialisation, and so forth. We were part of a counterculture that was criticising what we called the “achievement ethic”, corporate culture and consumerism. We wanted to build a new society on the basis of “post-materialist values”.

KR: Sounds far away now, doesn’t it.

NF: Right! Well, it was, as I say, the Owl of Minerva. The postwar wave of prosperity was collapsing under our feet but we didn’t know it. As I said, we thought we could build a post-materialist society. That turned out to be a naïve (if beautiful) illusion, but it gave us a great deal of confidence and entitlement. The fact that we didn’t worry about the kinds of things that students must worry about today was very freeing and very liberating, even if it soon proved wrong.


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