Nancy Fraser’s Lessons From the Long History of Capitalism

Nancy Fraser’s Lessons From the Long History of Capitalism

Nancy Fraser’s Lessons From the Long History of Capitalism

She talked to The Nation about capitalism’s evolutions and what the left can do to better prepare for the next political crisis.


Theories of capitalism have always also been theories of crisis. John Maynard Keynes linked the instability of capitalism to the instability of aggregate demand, and Marxist thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that capitalism depends on noncapitalist markets to survive but disavows and destroys them. In her new book, Cannibal Capitalism: How our System is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet and What We Can Do About It, Nancy Fraser—one of the best-known feminist political theorists working today—advances a similar argument but adds that capitalism should be viewed as an “institutionalized societal order” on par with feudalism. She calls for a broader understanding of capitalism that isn’t exclusively focused on private property, the means of production, wage labor, and accumulation. Just as we need an expanded view of capitalism, so too, she argues, do we need a broader conception of socialism.

Cannibal Capitalism builds on Fraser’s previous works, including, most recently, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, coauthored with Rahel Jaeggi, and The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond. Her latest book offers a longue durée history of capitalism, proceeding from mercantilism and 19th-century theories of laissez-faire to 20th-century state-organized capitalism and, finally, to today’s financialized capitalism. Each of these regimes found a way to temporarily solder the tensions between economy and polity, society and nature, production and reproduction, before unraveling and giving way to the next phase of capitalism. While capitalist regimes may be intrinsically crisis-prone, they are also infinitely adaptable. With customary rigor, Fraser identifies capitalism’s built-in tensions in four key areas, which serve as its background “conditions of possibility”: social reproduction, nonhuman nature, wealth extraction from racialized subjects, and public power. If a defining attribute of capitalist societies is that they cordon off noneconomic social relations from economic production, Fraser’s work serves as a corrective. Taking a more comprehensive view allows her to more fully capture how gender oppression, racial domination, and ecological destruction are not incidental to capitalism, but structurally embedded in it.

Fraser and I spoke to discuss her new book. Our conversation covered the “feeding frenzy” of capitalism; how Covid has laid bare some of its structural contradictions; and what it would take to starve cannibal capitalism to death. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Rhoda Feng

Rhoda Feng: You write, “To equate capitalism with its economy is to parrot the system’s own economistic self-understanding, and thus to miss the chance to interrogate it critically.” Instead, capitalism should be viewed more broadly, as a “way of organizing the relation of production and exchange to their non-economic conditions of possibility.” This claim is one you’ve made before, most recently in Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. Why did you feel the need to make the argument afresh?

Nancy Fraser: The reason I think it’s important to do so today is that if you only look at capitalism as an economic system, you don’t see how it drives climate change; how it drives a severe crisis of social reproduction, sometimes narrowly called a “crisis of care”; how it drives political crisis, the hollowing out of public power. You don’t see how we get a huge crisis of racial justice. All these strands are elements of a single crisis of capitalism. If you don’t see capitalism broadly, you’ll think they are separate things and might try to address them separately in ways that won’t work in the end.

So there are good, practical reasons why we need to think about capitalism broadly. Also, we won’t understand how different forms of social conflict then emerge around boundaries between the economy and the family, the economy and the stock market, society and nature, if we continue to think of capitalism as an economy. We’ll imagine that the only relevant form of social conflict that is built into capitalism is the class struggle of workers at the point of production. This obscures the connection with other forms of conflict—ecological struggle, anti-racist struggle, feminist struggle around issues of care and social reproduction—which will all appear secondary. That position is both empirically false and politically counterproductive. We’ll never build the kind of broad coalition that we need in order to get to the root of all these problems.

RF: You write about how the background conditions or “hidden abodes” of capitalism might realize their “emancipatory potential” by contesting the structural conditions that have separated them. In the context of social reproduction, what do “boundary struggles” look like?

NF: They’re all around us today. A lot of feminist struggles are struggles over protecting the autonomy, capacities, and freedom of those engaged in social reproduction. The most obvious at the moment are struggles over abortion in the United States and in some other places. This is about whether women are going to have the freedom and capacity to perform reproduction on their own terms. You could say the same thing about Me Too and struggles over whether the workplace will be organized in such a way as to permit real autonomy and equal participation for persons who are subjected to harassment and assault at work. The struggles around water in Jackson, Miss., and Flint, Mich., as well as housing, schools, and health care are also key components of social reproduction. Social reproduction doesn’t just happen in private households. It’s not just unpaid activity by mothers; it’s also all this public-sector stuff. There’s a struggle going on about how much of that will be provided out of public revenues. Who’s going to pay for it? Is it going to come out of the working class, or will corporate capital be forced to foot a hefty part of that bill? These are all struggles over social reproduction. I would say that the current form of capitalism is almost trying to return us to a stage of capitalism before the social democratic or New Deal era, in which there was very little public responsibility for social reproduction, and all these difficult, energy-consuming, time-consuming, skill-requiring, thought-requiring activities that it takes to nurture and sustain people and communities was thrust back on the working classes.

RF: I’m reminded of the feminist thinker Sophie Lewis’s call for “full surrogacy,” which is really a call for the work of producing and raising humans to be shared with kith and not shunted off into nuclear households. Is abolishing the family a way of striking a blow at capitalism?

NF: I don’t know about abolishing the family, but I’m certainly convinced that the whole meaning of the family has to change, because currently, it’s simply a prop for capital. But how you would de-instrumentalize the family and change it seems to be an open question. I would like to see more of a real choice about how to live, whether that’s in a commune or something closer to a nuclear family or an extended-kin arrangement. In other words, I think there should be an encouragement of social experimentation, but on terms of real fairness, so that society isn’t endorsing one form over another but is enforcing egalitarianism within all forms. The crucial point is that all these forms have to stand in a non-perverse, noncontradictory relation to the other major institutions of society. We probably don’t want to simply liquidate the division between state and family, for example. We don’t want to do what the Soviets tried to do: liquidate the division between the political and the economic. It’s difficult to say what the proper way of organizing care should be, but it can’t come off the backs of some people to benefit others. You shouldn’t externalize costs onto some disadvantaged group, whether it’s women, people of color, or whoever.

RF: How does capitalism work to demarcate populations that are expropriable from those that are exploitable? How is racial oppression baked into capitalism?

NF: I’m very influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, where he famously argued that the United States had two labor movements: the anti-slavery movement and the trade union movement. The second is a movement aimed at improving the degraded conditions of free and largely white proletarians who, on the one hand, “own” their labor power and are not encumbered by any master, but on the other hand, have been dispossessed of any access to work because they have no means of production. They’re one form of labor. Du Bois says that enslaved workers are a second face or second genre of capitalist labor. They don’t own their labor power but are compelled to perform under the lash. This idea of two faces of labor in capitalism is, I think, absolutely right. Du Bois says that slave labor is the founding stone of the emerging industrial capitalist system—that the plantation is the hidden abode behind the factory. The tragedy in Black Reconstruction is that the two labor movements don’t recognize one another and fail to understand that their fates are deeply entwined, that neither can emancipate itself on its own, and that they need to join forces in order to transform the social system that generates this perverse symbiosis between them. They’re functionally integrated but politically divided. I find Du Bois’s analysis brilliant and think it holds today.

It still makes sense to me to distinguish expropriated from exploited labor; it’s a division that corresponds roughly but unmistakably to the global color line that Du Bois theorized as the problem of the 20th century, but that we could say is a structural problem of the 21st century as well. Long after the formal abolition of slavery, we still have unfree, semi-free, or dependent labor in many forms, whether it’s sweatshops, brothels, prisons, debt peonage among peasants or agricultural workers in many parts of the world. This status differential—free versus not fully free—also corresponds to an economic differential between those whose cost of reproduction is borne by capital and those whose cost of living is not borne by capital. Exploitation and expropriation remain a structural component of capitalist society.

RF: Capitalism is often bound up with rampant consumerism, and there’s a popular view that consumerism is a problem of personal desire, of being avaricious for too many things. But following Marx, one could say that it is not desires that are the issue but the way in which those desires are produced and denied. Similarly, Horkheimer and Adorno have noted that capitalism is not a conveyor belt of limitless pleasures but a deferral of them. On an affective level, this seems like another way that capitalism eats its own tail: By generating desires it is unable to fulfill, it systematically pathologizes individuals for having those desires and leaves them miserable and depressed. What is the relationship between capitalism’s political economy and its libidinal economy?

NF: What you’ve summarized is a very rich and interesting account of the psychic life of consumers in capitalism. In the age of the image, this all takes on a very powerful visual dimension: People can see what the “good life” is supposed to be, and they either desperately try to attain it or, as you say, feel diminished when they can’t. But I think it’s a mistake to totalize the consumerist analysis, because people’s sense of themselves and their goals are formed from multiple streams of experience. Not all of it comes from advertising, influencing, and mass culture. People draw a lot of their sense of what’s important from their families, neighborhoods, villages, and communities. This may be less pronounced for the professional-managerial strata and the bicoastal elites, who might think of their children as human capital to be husbanded, invested in, and so on. But I don’t think that’s how the working classes or producing classes understand their lives and what’s important to them.

RF: You write, “Nothing fully counts as a crisis until it is experienced as such. What looks like a crisis to an outside observer does not become historically generative until participants in the society see it as a crisis.” That quote reminds me of a distinction that Cornel West makes between “hot” and “cold” moments in human society. (He wrote that “in relatively cold moments in human societies, class conflict is mediated through social, cultural, or educational changes that ensure the muting of class struggle,” whereas in hot moments, “structural change becomes a conscious and overt engagement of forces.”) Has Covid inaugurated a hot moment in society?

NF: I fully subscribe to the distinction that Cornel West has invoked. I’ve used different language for it and have talked about periods of normal politics versus crisis periods. This has everything to do with the Gramscian idea of hegemony. In normal or, as West says, “cold” periods, you have enough acceptance of the established terms of the game so that people are trying to improve their situation by following those rules. That’s a period of hegemony. So-called “hot” or crisis periods are periods in which the hegemonic common sense is in tatters. That’s when you have people scrambling to find new terms and when the “objective crisis”—say, mass unemployment—becomes a subjective, historical force. 

While I like the Gramscian distinction very much, for me, the next question is: What happens in that situation of crisis or heat or hegemonic breakdown? As Gramsci said, “The old is dying but the new cannot be born. In this interregnum all sorts of morbid symptoms appear.” Trumpism and all its cognate political forms throughout the world are all morbid symptoms, and they’re pretty plentiful at the moment. There’s no guarantee that, in a hegemonic crisis, the good emerges victorious. There are some very promising, potentially emancipatory political formations that are emerging, but they’re less powerful at the moment than the bad ones in most places.

RF: Given what is arguably a series of ongoing and accelerating crises, what would it mean for the left to be better prepared for the next crisis? Is capitalism in the US headed for terminal decline?

NF: I don’t think it’s about the next crisis; I think it’s about how we’re going to get a resolution of this crisis, and if we can get one. It’s a general crisis, not a sectoral crisis—not just a crisis of the economy or ecology or care, but all those things intertwined and exacerbating each other. The root of all this is the design of a social system that licenses a small group of profit-driven institutions and actors to cannibalize the bases of their ability to make profits. That’s the problem. I don’t expect it to be resolved soon. But if it’s going to be resolved in a good way, it will require some kind of counter-hegemonic bloc in which many different constituencies can see themselves as participants and can recognize that their specific pressing concerns will be addressed and their lives improved. That means figuring out how to link up a new form of life that addresses climate change, the crisis of care, the political crisis, the crisis of race, expropriation, and dispossession. We’ve gained a lot over the last decades from movements that insisted on the specificity of their situation. What we’re now facing is the need to think integratively. How do we connect the dots between those specificities in such a way that people can see themselves as, at the very least, sharing a common enemy, being cannibalized by the same system, and being able to form broad alliances aimed at dismantling that system and replacing it with something else?

RF: You assert that “the coronavirus served as a textbook vindication of public power.” One node where we’ve seen this play out is in the development of Covid vaccines. The US government provided millions of dollars to Moderna as early as 2013 to help develop its mRNA technology. You could say that when we depreciate public power—when Moderna seeks to patent its vaccine—that works to enrich the private sector, which historically has assumed very little risk but has derived outsize profits.

NF: There are several things here. One is the problem of intellectual property. In this phase of capitalism, that’s become the new form of expropriation: Intellectual property expropriates the knowledge, the funding, the research capacity that is often public. The intellectual sphere should be a commons—it is a commons in its structure. And we’re seeing a new enclosure as well as an expropriation of the commons. This is a broader problem than Covid vaccines, but Covid epitomizes it in a very clear way. One thing that Covid has shown us is how depleted and disinvested the public health care infrastructure in the US and elsewhere has become over the last 40 years of neoliberalization. Capital has turned over the lion’s share of the world’s health infrastructure resources to private hands—from R&D to manufacture and production, distribution capacity, and so on. The result is a disaster; it means that all these utterly essential resources are in the hands of actors who have zero interest in the common good and whose sole driving interest is shareholder value. They’re operating on the basis of motivations that are completely at odds with those that need to be governing the sphere. This brings us back to socialism: when it comes to basic goods, like health-related therapeutics and infrastructure, we have to take them outside of the logic of the market. Those are some of the lessons that we should have learned from Covid.

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