The inside-outside dialectic in the work of Nancy Fraser



The analytical scheme proposed by Nancy Fraser reveals the hidden spheres that anchor the reproduction of capitalism in social formations

In the expanded theory of capitalism proposed by Nancy Fraser (Fraser; Jaeggi, 2020), the sphere of expropriation concerns what is hidden in the official history of this mode of production. In this case, workers are free to sell their labor power on the market, enjoying formally established rights. Behind this evolution is the exploration revealed by Marx in Book I of The capital. And after having exposed that the world of commodities hid the exploitation of free workers, the author described the processes of expropriation in the stage of primitive accumulation. It's as if saying: if exploitation is bad, expropriation was worse.

However, for some authors, this is not about the past, expropriation would be a constitutive phenomenon in the history of capitalism. Especially after the publication of David Harvey's study (2004), on the new imperialism, a work in which he takes up analyzes by Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt, this formulation appeared in several authors, here we focus on the work Capitalism in debate, by Fraser and Jaeggi (2020). The book is organized in the form of a conversation between Fraser and Jaeggi (2020), but it revolves around Nancy Fraser's expanded meaning of capitalism, which is why we refer only to her.

The author recognizes the influence of Harvey (and Luxemburg) when arguing that expropriation is inherent to the history of capitalism: “This type of 'primitive accumulation' is a continuous process, from which capital benefits and depends” (Fraser; Jaeggi , 2020, p. 36). She also supports him in understanding that expropriation mechanisms have been innovated and accentuated in recent decades; in addition to adhering to the idea that capitalism needs an outside to reproduce itself. According to Nancy Fraser, capitalism would be a system that demands “external bodies of wealth to cannibalize. It needs the ‘outside’. This exterior is, in this sense, an integral part of capitalism” (Fraser, 2023, p. 12).

Nancy Fraser's objective is to go beyond the sphere of expropriation, bringing to light other dimensions hidden in official history. Next, we will argue that the analytical scheme proposed by Nancy Fraser is very rich, including because it would dispense with the inside-outside dialectic. To this end, we summarize the author's expanded theory, of which the sphere of expropriation is a constitutive part, as well as the other spheres in the background; Finally, we suggest what seems to be a good combination: Nancy Fraser and Nicos Poulantzas.

Very briefly, Nancy Fraser defends the understanding of capitalism as a complex social totality, articulated in a plurality of spheres, in a way that is reminiscent of the Althusserian school. Nevertheless, the scheme proposed by Nancy Fraser é more interesting, because in addition to avoiding the base-superstructure binary, it incorporates contemporary issues brought up by new perspectives: feminist, ecosocialism, new imperialism, decolonial.

The articulation between the spheres consists of the relationships of dependence between two planes: the main one (of “official history”) and the background (hidden). The first concerns the spheres of economy, production, exploration and human nature (society); the background is made up of the spheres of politics, expropriation, social reproduction and non-human nature (environment). All within the broad conception of capitalism. Therefore, it seems to us that it makes no sense to talk about an “exterior” as an “integral part of capitalism” (Fraser, 2023, p. 12).

For our part, in order to insert an outside into this meaning, we would explicitly retain the concepts of mode of production and social formation. The mode of production understood as an abstract concept, and social formations as a determined space and time for the reproduction of a mode of production or more than one, in this case, in relations of domination and subordination (Poulantzas, 2019; Saes, 1985). In other words, in a capitalist social formation the capitalist mode of production prevails, and may be the only one or coexist with elements of other modes of production.

There are more authors who, like Poulantzas (2019) and Althusserians in general, understand that elements from different modes of production are combined in a social formation (for example, Wright, 1985). It is worth noting that, recently, Jabbour and Gabrielle (2021) characterized China as a new type of social formation that would combine elements of capitalist, non-capitalist and socialist modes of production.

What we want to emphasize is that the proposed analytical scheme brings to light the hidden spheres that anchor the reproduction of capitalism in social formations. This mode of production is reproduced in social formations via relations of dependence between the spheres of Nancy Fraser's two plans. This would explain the variety of capitalisms, identifiable from a core definition (the one offered by Fraser and Jaeggi, in the light of Marx). The variety has to do with the occurrence of this mode of production in concrete social formations, depending on the modes of articulation between the spheres listed by the author.

 Regarding the “exterior”, for us, this refers to the presence of elements from other modes of production in capitalist social formations, which tend to change in contact with capitalism. We reject the inside-outside thesis precisely because the “background” spheres are within the author’s expanded theory, whereas the outside would not be capitalism. This is how we would adjust Nancy Fraser's proposal, with no reason to resort to enigmatic formulas such as “an outside that is inside”.

In this context, it is worth reading Scholz's (2019) criticism of the colonization approach (this is how expropriation appears in the Portuguese translation), considered anachronistic by the author, as it is tied to a past historical era, when conceiving expropriation in a transhistorical sense to analyze new phenomena , under neoliberal capitalism.

Fraser and Jaeggi (2020, p. 43-44) first offer a core definition of capitalism (orthodox-economic), in order to identify capitalist social formations, then Fraser introduces the background spheres, with the aim of “de- orthodoxification” of this (economic) meaning anchored in four elements: (i) division into classes; (ii) free labor market; (iii) dynamics of capital accumulation (= endless movement for the appreciation of value); (iv) market allocation of productive inputs and social surplus.

Certainly, the social relations of production and the level of productive forces are included in this core definition, which, to be complete, we understand would require the legal-political structure, as conceived by Poulantzas (2019): capitalist law and the related modern form of organization of the State staff (bureaucratism), in addition to the state monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In this way, we would have a core (heterodox) definition of the capitalist mode of production to distinguish capitalist from non-capitalist social formations, despite the variety of the former, depending on the forms of articulation of the spheres in concrete realities.

It is important to note that we conceive the mode of production as the relationship of mutual correspondence between the economic structure (as in Nancy Fraser's definition) and the legal-political structure (Poulantzas, 2019), and not simply the base (Saes, 1985). They are united parts, with the legal-political structure being a condition for the constitution and reproduction of the capitalist economy. Thus, we avoid any economism (an objective highlighted by Fraser), in the concept of capitalist mode of production and in the understanding of its occurrence in concrete social formations.

Furthermore, when analyzing how the capitalist mode of production reproduces itself in social formations, it is necessary to understand how the different spheres relate to each other without losing sight of the delimitations imposed by the uneven and combined development of capitalism on a global scale.

At the level of the intersection between the spheres, by way of illustration, the investigation of the modes of overlap between the spheres of economics and politics would include questions such as: what political model makes the neoliberal accumulation regime viable in social formations, in what sense does it does it differ from the state-administered capitalism regime? In fact, something little developed in the work of Fraser and Jaeggi (2020) concerns the ways of intersection between the spheres, probably because the conversation is focused on the presentation of the theoretical arrangement, which, we insist, would dispense with an outside that is inside.

If we were to indicate just one problem with the inside-outside thesis, we would say that it resides in the fact that it is considered that rich countries are rich because they expropriate poor countries, when, in fact, rich countries expropriate the poor because they are rich. In other words, first comes the evolution of capitalism (for countries to be rich) led by the capacity for scientific-technological innovation, the flagship of the process of developing productive forces at a national level. This includes economic-financial factors, such as the formation of modern financial capital, and non-economic factors, such as the political formation and activism of the working classes.

A process characterized by enormous destructive momentum, related to the tendency of the capitalist system to destroy its conditions of existence, as highlighted by Fraser. Creative or self-contained destruction as part of the destruction of jobs and the environment.

*Angelita Matos Souza is a political scientist and professor at the Institute of Geosciences and Exact Sciences at Unesp. []


FRASER, N. Racialized and gendered capitalism: interview with Nancy Fraser. Magazine BLACK, 26(66), 2023a.

FRASER, N.; JAEGGI, R. (2020). Debating capitalism. A Conversation in Critical Theory. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020. []

HARVEY, D. the new imperialism. São Paulo: Loyola, 2004. []

JABBOUR, E.; GABRIELE, A. China: Socialism in the XNUMXst Century. São Paulo. Boitempo, 2021. []

POULANTZAS, N. Political power and social classes. Campinas: Unicamp Ed., 2019. []

SAES, DAM The Formation of the Bourgeois State in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1985. []

SCHOLZ, R. Christopher Columbus Forever? For the critique of current theories of colonization in the context of the “Collapse of modernization”. Geografares [Online], 28, 2019.

WRIGHT, E.O. Classes. London. Verso, 1985.

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