Interview: Nancy Fraser

Common Wealth’s Amelia Horgan spoke to Nancy Fraser about crisis, capitalism and socialist feminism

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

In Feminism for the 99% (Verso, 2019), you write about how Hillary Clinton’s defeat was at once a wake-up call and an opening for a new kind of feminism. I was wondering whether you think that moment has been seized.  

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

I would have to distinguish as to where we’re talking about. The situation in Latin America and southern Europe is quite interesting, their feminist movements have taken centre stage as the main voice of anti-austerity, anti-debt politics. This is especially true in Argentina, in Spain, to a lesser extent, in Brazil, and in Italy. And so, they continued to have these huge, massive March 8 demonstrations that really do embody what I was hoping for in the feminism of the 99%. They articulate and integrate what we normally think of as gender questions with the whole panoply of pressing questions about the relations between states and markets, and debt, and labour, and so on and so forth. By contrast, I would have to say the situation in the United States is nowhere near so interesting or so close to what we were hoping for. There is plenty of activism in the United States, but it is still dictated at the moment by questions of abortion, including with the Supreme Court having overturned, Roe v Wade and states moving to restrict abortion access — the latest is the attempt to overturn the approval of the so-called abortion pill, mifepristone.

Our hope was of articulating feminist politics very closely with politics around labour, livelihood, environmentalism, health, and so on. I wouldn’t say that at the moment that that’s the face of feminism, but I do think even in the US, we succeeded, at introducing this possibility to many young activists. This is something I find in my teaching and when I’m travelling around, there is still a lot of interest in this type of feminism.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

Running through your work is a project of the theoretical and practical integration of social movements and a more orthodox Marxism or socialism. Could you talk about that integration, how it might happen, both conceptually and strategically?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

I should first say that in my view, there has been a disarticulation historically, between socialist movements centred especially on industrial labour, and feminist movements centred especially on the family and reproduction and so on. And from a broader point of view, and one that I think, should resonate with your project about democratising work. From a broader point of view, it’s possible to think of both movements — feminism and socialism or trade unionism — as in a sense concerned with labour issues; it’s just that labour has been divided in capitalist society into these two spheres of production and reproduction. And as a result, because reproduction has historically not been seen as work, feminism wasn’t seen as a labour movement, and has never really, except for in a few cases are not largely thought of itself as a labour movement. I see my project and that of many other feminists on the left, as trying to put the pieces together that capitalism has split apart.

It’s possible to think of both movements — feminism and socialism or trade unionism — as in a sense concerned with labour issues; it’s just that labour has been divided in capitalist society into these two spheres of production and reproduction.

At a theoretical level, that has involved, trying to develop what I call an expanded view of what capitalism is, that is as a social system, which is not the same as an economic system in the official sense, or in the narrow sense, which would confine work to wage labour in factories. A social system includes what I think of as all the background conditions that are necessary for that official economy to function in the first place. That includes things like nature, care work, families and communities that keep social bonds in order that reproduce generations and reproduce workers on a daily basis. It includes public powers that regulate and provide infrastructure, and so on. This is all part of what a capitalist society is, but it’s a society that divides these things and allows the economic part to go off to the races and run roughshod over everything else. The profit makers, the mega corporations, the large investors and so on, are simply encouraged and allowed in this system to help themselves to care work to public regulatory power and infrastructure, to natural inputs was to take what they need in pursuit of profit, without any responsibility to replenish or repair.

I call that view of capitalism “cannibal capitalism”, and that’s what I think should be the object of critique. And strategically, the question must be how to deal with it. That should be the object for a whole slew of social movements — feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism. In a sense, all of those goals are made extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, by virtue of this social system, this cannibal capitalism system, and for me, as someone who is primarily an academic and intellectual critical theorist, I’ve been working on trying to create a conceptual map of the social system that could direct people engaging in struggles against different parts of that system in different places with different pressing, existential concerns, because the system affects people differently. We're not all in exactly the same boat. I’ve been trying to create a map on which people could locate themselves find one another, see who their potential allies and enemies are. That's not yet a strategic perspective, and there I might want to defer a bit to people who are more on the ground and in different places and so on. I think the strategy will differ here and there, but the overall conception is to try to create some very broad set of alliances — what Gramscians would call a counterhegemonic historic political bloc — of forces that could tackle the deep roots of all these issues, which, lie, I believe, in the very perverse and contradictory structure and institutional order that I'm calling cannibal capitalism.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

How does capitalism cannibalise or freeride on the “non-economic”?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

Maybe I could start by explaining shortly my relation to Marx or Marxism. Let’s leave Marx aside because he's a much deeper and more interesting thinker than he’s usually made out to be. But Marxism as it's been codified has understood that the whole driving force of capitalist society is to accumulate surplus value by not paying free wage workers for all the hours that they work by appropriating the so-called surplus value accumulated in the produced in the hours of over and above what it takes to just pay for their living costs. That's fine as far as it goes. But I think there's an even more important category in capitalism than surplus value — that is profit and profit comes not only from those extra unpaid hours of free wage workers, but also comes from unpaid, unremunerated costs from free riding on a host of other things, including unpaid care work or severely underpaid care work, including wealth expropriated from unfree or conquered or enslaved or semi dependent populations. colonials, ex colonials, and so on, including indigenous peoples. Also, from nature itself: the system does not require the profiteers to pay for the reproduction costs of the natural inputs they use. This is all part of profit, and that’s the motivating force, because, after all, most capitalists have never even heard of surplus value. My claim is that without all these other forms of wealth that are siphoned off by capital accumulation, the system is not possible; it depends not only on exploited wage workers in factories, but on expropriated racialised populations, unpaid nature, care work that's free-ridden on.

Because of the incentive to take without replenishing — the formula for cannibalisation — is very deeply inscribed in the system, when there are reform movements that emerge that tried to deal with one form of cannibalisation, they can, for a time, succeed in producing reforms that make it more difficult for freeriding to take place, but then the profiteers just make up for it by exacerbating another form of free riding elsewhere. Unless you get a handle on the whole social system, they’re very good at trading off and dodging and shifting their cannibalising efforts elsewhere.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

Could you talk a little more about the splitting of economic and the non-economic? Is there a historical story that can be told there?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

There are many different aspects to this, but I think the one that has been front and centre for feminists has been the separation of production from reproduction, which you even see in the sort of architectural design of our cities in capitalism, the separation of a place of “work” (meaning paid work), from “home”. In medieval villages, everything took place in same spaces and, and as part of the same social universe. So that even where men and women tended to do different kinds of productive activity, these were all understood as contributions, as labour and so on, there wasn’t this sense of Mars and Venus, of two categorically different things, that ideology of separate spheres, which became a fundamental characteristic of capitalist society, certainly in the historic core or metropole, and also imposed to the degree that it can support it elsewhere.

That’s one aspect: production and reproduction, family and work. Then we have the idea of market versus state. Again, the idea that these are two fundamentally different forms of things, when, of course, they’re thoroughly interpenetrating — take the role of money in politics and corporate capture of regulatory agencies and offshoring and all the rest. And, we constantly have this struggle over where the line between what should be marketised, what should be public, the neoliberal form of capitalism has been about pushing back some traditionally public areas, especially in the realm of social reproduction, pushing them onto market marketised commodified production.

A third is the separation of society and nature which doesn’t originate with capitalism, it’s much older, but which gets exacerbated when we get the scientific revolution, the mechanical view of nature, and this sense that nature is nothing but a collection of resources that firms can take at will.

And fourthly, free vs unfree labour is a very important additional division, which again, had to do with imperialism, with colonisation with chattel, racialised chattel slavery, new world slavery, including forms of unfree labour that continue today.

To summarise, capitalism thrives on a set of divisions, many of which involve divisions among different kinds of labour. Not all but what some of which are not even recognised as labour or are not supposed to exist, officially.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

Reading Cannibal Capitalism put me in mind of your New Left Review article “Behind the Hidden Abode”. Could you talk about the journey from that article to the book?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

It was a very organic evolution; the article is quite compressed and abstract, but it had in it almost all the major moves that I wanted to make. The one exception from the original article was that it glossed very quickly over the racial and imperial dynamics. It talked about Marx’s chapter on primitive accumulation as a model for what it meant to think behind the hidden adobe, but it didn’t really return to that and in subsequent work I tried to work it out more explicitly. I was inspired to do that by an exchange that I had with Michael Dawson, who’s an African American political scientist who works on black politics and the left in the US. An exchange that I had with him really forced me to see that I had to make that a full part of the picture.

After the article was published, I went one by one through the cannibalisations, writing further essays, which became book chapters. Each one was focussed on this problem of crisis and contradiction — cannibal capitalism is a contradictory system, because when you when you simply cannibalise and don’t replace things that are necessary conditions of possibility for the social system then trouble is bound to happen.

That trouble is not always acute but there are moments when the trouble becomes acute. So, I wrote a whole series of essays going abode by adobe: on the contradictions of care, on the racial and political and democratic contradictions of capitalism, and on the ecological.

Ultimately, the book is partly a theory of crisis. I wanted to rehabilitate crisis theory, which was a form of critical theory that had fallen into disrepute. It was considered deterministic, teleological, mechanistic, economistic, blah, blah, blah. Of course, it’s true that there were forms of it that deserved those criticism, I’m not denying that, but living in a time like ours, with an absolutely pressing, ecological crisis, a climate crisis, a planetary crisis, global health crisis, care crisis, political crisis, and that ticking time bomb of financial crisis that was deferred for a bit but has not been actually addressed, well, we’re living in a period of acute crisis. And for that, we need a crisis theory, both to understand the time in which we’re living in but also to understand why people are acting the way they are politically — things like the rise of conspiracy theories, the presence of movements that blame all the wrong people for deteriorating living conditions.

Ultimately, the book is partly a theory of crisis. I wanted to rehabilitate crisis theory ... living in a time like ours, with an absolutely pressing, ecological crisis, a climate crisis, a planetary crisis, global health crisis, care crisis, political crisis, and that ticking time bomb of financial crisis that was deferred for a bit but has not been actually addressed, well, we’re living in a period of acute crisis.

My argument is that capitalism has several different contradictions built into it structurally. It's not just prone to economic crisis, as Marxists have, famously and I would say correctly argued, it’s also got built into it a tendency to ecological crisis, to social reproduction crisis, to political crisis, to crisis of racial, imperial dynamics. The aim of the book is to show that, as well to show that we are living in a period of acute crisis — a crisis of the current form of cannibal capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, which is a very, predatory cannibalising form of capitalism.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

Cannibal Capitalism ends with a call for a renewed socialism adequate to those multiple contradictions. Could you talk a bit more about that? How does that renewed socialism differ from versions of social democracy, for example?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

In a way, this is the most exploratory and least developed part of the book. And it's something I would like to pursue further in ongoing work. There’s a reason why historically many socialists have been reluctant to spell out too much — it’s really hard to do. But starting from the expanded view of capitalism, if capitalism is a system that institutionalises and incentivises this kind of cannibalisation and free riding on all these so called extra economic forms of wealth in society, then socialism has to do much more than simply reorganising the economy. It has to do more than reorganising production as production is traditionally defined, it must do that, and God knows that's a hard enough thing to do! But in addition, it has to reimagine and reinvent the relationship between production and reproduction, between society and nature, between economy and polity, between core and periphery. It’s a much bigger job than some socialists traditionally assumed.

I have to say, though, we do have a great tradition of socialist feminism, or at least of individuals and groups within left wing governments that that understood this and I'm thinking of people like Alexander Kollontai or Sylvia Pankhurst and others, including Engels even, who said that you can’t just socialise the ownership of the means of production you have to also socialised housework, you can’t just have soviets, you need household soviets. Feminists have understood this and tried to make this case. Similarly, ecofeminists and ecologists have made the case about rethinking our relationship with nature, and critics of racial capitalism are rethinking the questions of geography and racial order, and of how it is that so much unfree labour still exists.

We have to figure out how to change all of this. It’s a huge job. What I do in that chapter is mainly to spell out how big the job is, but I do come up with a few principles. Some of them are very familiar ones, but I think the one that follows most directly from my argument is what I call the “Pay as You Go” principle, a principle against free riding. Whatever forms of wealth — natural wealth, community wealth, care, energies, political capacity, and so on — need to be replaced as we go. It’s a different idea than the traditional one — really existing socialism was largely focused on playing catch up to capitalist industrialism, pouring into industry, without regard for the natural costs and the social costs and the political costs. I think that model is dead in the water today.

Maybe the biggest point about how I understand socialism is the idea of surplus. Whatever we produce, or whatever forms of wealth we generate, above and beyond keeping our existing form of life going. That’s historical, understood within the socialist tradition, a surplus. In capitalism, it's appropriated as profit, which means that the profiteers decide what to do with it, how to invest it. And their criterion for investment decisions is what generates more profit. I think a socialist society has to treat surplus as collective wealth, collective property and to be invested in projects that are collectively and democratically decided on as what satisfies our need for good, decent, pleasurable ways of egalitarian ways of living.

I also had a little formula that’s again, not worked out, but it’s a heuristic: no markets at the bottom, no markets at the top. We can experiment in the middle.  At the bottom are basic goods, whatever they are, and that all has to be argued out, they need to be in the form of public goods in some sense, not as commodities.

I’m not against all markets or all commodities. In this sense, I’m closer to Karl Polanyi, who argued very persuasively that many human societies have had markets in one form or another, but they haven’t been capitalist markets that allocate the use of surplus, that allocate the use of resources, and that are supposed to be regulated only by supply and demand with only minimal external regulation. Those are the markets that are the problem. In between the top and the bottom is a space of experimentation for cooperatives, collectives, small businesses, and so on.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

What do you take democratising work to mean? How might the current constitution of work be undemocratic?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

The first question is what counts as work. One thing that’s interesting about your initiative is your openness to a broad conception of that — we desperately need that. We need to democratise not only the activities that go on inside factories, or offices or whatever, but also on farms, and in communities and so on. The most important thing is to expand what we see as work and therefore to expand what we think of as the workforce, or if you prefer the working class. Assuming there is just one thing there, it’s a various body of people doing socially useful things, but under conditions that make the work unfree, undemocratic, often miserably unpleasurable and uncreative, and done out of tremendous fear of insecurity of starvation, of bad living conditions, in short, under necessity.

So, I would say that work has to become democratic, but it also has to become free, it has to become pleasurable, it has to be decently remunerated, it has to be in a social context, it has to be freely chosen. Part of what democratising it means is that it that within a workplace itself, the people engaged with the work, are also engaged in the collective decision making about how it’s organised, how tasks are allotted, and remunerated, and so on, so forth. But I don't think so-called workplace democracy is sufficient, because what goes on in the workplace also affects the people who live near it, who may not ever even enter that workplace as workers, the larger world in terms of what's produced, what, how the actual inputs are sourced, and so on.

This may be an unpopular idea today, but I think that democratising work, like socialism itself, requires some forms of democratic planning that involves more than just the workers, that involve some bird’s eye view of what is what we need to produce in the society. That’s always relative to what we lack in this place, or in that place. There are billions of people across the world that lack nutritious and delicious food, that lack decent living or shelter that lack healthcare and so on, and who have been systematically deprived of the wealth that they would need to organise that. Capitalism is a system that has enriched some parts of the world and some classes in some parts of the world but created poverty, immiseration and terrible suffering in others. Local workplace democracy can’t address that, we have to think of it systematically and at a global level. That means democratic planning, things like participatory budgeting, for example.

What should the relationship be between the kind of work that makes food or medicine or building materials, and the kind of work that cares, that teaches children that right tends to the sick, that takes care of aging people? These two kinds of work are divided in capitalism. One is, is supposed to be one is for profit, one was historically not counted as work, then for a while in welfare states, some of it became public now is increasingly commodified, we have to think about the broad questions about the design of work, whether it should be siloed up like that, whether people should spend their lives doing one kind of work only or should rotate, whether there should be one class of people that are carers and others that are something else, or whether that’s something that everyone should take turns doing. These are decisions that should be made democratically. And they are part of what it means to democratise work. The design of the whole thing.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

That speaks to a potential tension: say you have workers in a factory who want to make one thing, but the people who live nearby who might be workers in a different factory or a different kind of worker, might not want a particular polluting aspect of the production process. Or even consider the tension at a planetary level, if certain kinds of work are sustainable, and how a just transition could come to pass. Again, all of this comes back to the need for planning, too.

It seems that some of this moves point of production struggles or struggles within “traditional” work away from its central position within socialist thinking. Is the idea that the traditional workplace is one of many aspects of struggle or contestation, all of near equal importance, or that it’s less important than others?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

I don’t think it’s less important. I’d like to historicise the question a little bit. Throughout most of the history of socialism and the Euro American left, the whole issue has been trade unionism and especially industrial work. That struggle has been seen as strategically the place where you confront capital head on and that’s where the sort of revolutionary potential is. But in US history and in parts of the global south there was a second labour movement — the movement of abolition, anti-slavery was also a labour movement. It was a struggle over livelihood and ad debt and taxation tribute extractivism. So, as I said, feminism, could also be thought of as in part a labour movement. What I would like to do is at least explore the idea that one way of imagining an expanded coalition of anti-capitalist struggle around labour about vastly expanded idea of labour. That’s one possibility.

Neoliberalisation relocated a huge amount of manufacturing and industrial manufacturing, to what we would now call the semi periphery or the BRICS countries and so on. We now have in countries like yours and mine, the Rust Belt, right, we have the Upper Midwest, you’ve got the North. And these are devastated regions, really, of people who were used to something better. And there are sometimes people who have made very bad political decision, like voting for Brexit, or Trump, as an expression of their deteriorating situation, their worry and confusion and suffering. Of course, too unions became very weakened in the US, maybe less so in the UK, but I think they've been taken down a good notch there as well.

Unions in the US were seen for a long time as corrupt, and mafia dominated. That’s all changed now — a new generation of young people are drawn to these exciting efforts to unionise fast food workers, Amazon workers, universities, graduate students, part-time faculty, and lots more. There’s a lot of energy there and I wouldn’t count it out but any means, but it is now in different sectors, not in manufacturing but in distribution, retail, service work, and so on, and the public sector too. It suggests that labour broadly understood could be very large part of a coalition. Also, that some aspects of feminist organising could be understood and might become better understood as labour related, whether we are talking about reproductive work in them in the work of social reproduction or the question of reproductive rights in the biological sense, whether we are talking about me too, which is about harassment and assault in the workplace — there are so many ways to think about this. And I would say that sort of whole question of racial oppression is deeply connected to questions about labour and livelihood. And this is why so many environmental activists are drawn to the notion of something like a Green New Deal, because they understand that livelihood security is a real question. And that any form of sort of radical degrowth that doesn't address that is a political non-starter. So, there are all kinds of possible ways of making connections in and through the idea of a labour movement, revived by expanded critique of capitalism, for the present moment.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

Could you talk about the current political situation in the US. Biden and Bidencomics look in some ways positive, but a very long way from the vision of renewed socialism that you’ve outlined. How should people relate to this moment and are you hopeful for the future?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

It’s a very mixed situation. We had a moment a few years ago, when we moved right from Occupy to Bernie Sanders’ first campaign. And then the second campaign and so on, where we saw something like a national focus of left wing organising emerging. Now, we are still electing self-proclaimed democratic socialists to the US Congress, and so on so forth. There is in the Democratic Party still a growing so called progressive wing, I don’t like the word progressive there, but a left wing, let's say. And, you know, and there's a tremendous amount of organising, like that union organising I mentioned, or the reproductive rights organising, the movement for black lives, and ecological stuff, there's a lot going on, but now, it’s no longer as a very visible, overarching umbrella that puts it front and centre that can really galvanise and attract. We’re in a lull right now when compared to say 2016. But you can’t really predict what triggers things.

What people like me are trying to do is at least put out there for the record — for whoever comes along to discover it — a way of thinking that could be useful. And that has learned a lot from the recent history of radicalism, and that tries to systematise some of the insights about recent history and make them available and push them a bit further and so on.

There are days when I feel very pessimistic days, I feel more optimistic, but that’s a psychological thing. What I want to keep in view is that the system is in a deep crisis, that things can’t go on exactly this way forever. Something has to give. Whether the outcome is something desirable, or something really horrible, or just some slow descent into oblivion, we can’t predict in advance; it’s going to defend dependent on what people do. It’s not preordained.

There are days when I feel very pessimistic days, I feel more optimistic, but that’s a psychological thing. What I want to keep in view is that the system is in a deep crisis, that things can’t go on exactly this way forever. Something has to give.

For the time being, we’re in a bit of a stasis. Clearly, Biden is going to run again. There’s a good chance that Trump will be the Republican nominee. We won’t have Sanders there. He is almost certainly not going to run again himself. And there is nobody within the Left wing of the Democratic Party who is the obvious candidate.

[.cdw-name]Amelia Horgan[.cdw-name]

Is there a book on work and democratising work that you think people should read, especially if it’s something that’s not read enough?

[.cdw-name]Nancy Fraser[.cdw-name]

There’s all this wonderful literature by people like Kathi Weeks, and so on, against work, and that’s very interesting. But, also, the person I just read on work, who made the deepest impression on me, and that was William Morris. I’m teaching a course for which I assigned this wonderful set of lectures that I think then were published as a book or as a pamphlet, in the 1880 as Signs of Change. They’re largely about work, and how miserable and unpleasant and unfree work is, and why work can and should become pleasurable. He gives six principles for what work should be like — one of them is that work must bring with it sufficient rest, and not just animal rest, but rest that takes the form of enlivening creative activity outside work that is rejuvenating. If we’re going to talk about work, we also have to talk about leisure, we have to talk about how work has to be freely chosen, that it is has to be democratically organised and designed, and that it has to be pleasurable. I think we don’t talk enough about pleasure.

This is some text inside of a div block.