the cannibal sociability



Thoughts on Nancy Fraser's New Book

We are not talking about societies that are usually called primitive. No, not at all. You are talking about capitalism. “Capitalism is back” – says the author who coined the term “cannibal capitalism”, having as reference the United States of North America.

Karl Marx, as is well known, used the metaphor of the “vampire” to characterize the capital relation, that is, capital, because it sucks the workers' surplus value, stating, moreover, that it becomes an insatiable subject. Anselm Jappe denoted capitalism as an autophagic society to emphasize that, if it seems rational and is thus apprehended by apologetic economists, it actually tends to excess and self-destruction. Nancy Fraser, in a recently published book, says that capitalism is cannibal because it, which is now going through its sunset, is devouring democracy, reproductive care, as well as people and the planet itself.

Em cannibal capitalism (Verso, 2022), Nancy Fraser wants to discover the social sources of this ill-fated and apparently unexpected fate. It seeks, therefore, to find a better characterization of contemporary capitalism that emerges as a generator of insecurity and hopelessness, as it maintains and aggravates a collection of humanitarian impasses: unpayable debts, strenuous jobs, precarious work, racial and gender violence, murderous pandemics, climate extremes etc., denying in practice what had been promised at least two and a half centuries ago through progress and enlightenment. Cannibal capitalism – says professor and philosopher at New School for Social Research of New York – “is my term for a social system that has brought us to this point”.

If that term was used by Western predatory colonialism to designate black Africans and thus to disparage their societies and cultures, it now seems ironically appropriate to refer to the specifically capitalist sociability that has prospered so extraordinarily in the West itself. Yes, this is a mockery. Human flesh is not consumed there, but only in a literal sense. Behold, it is becoming clear even to positivists – and even (implicitly) to denialists – that this social system, in order to continue subsisting, cannibalizes and has to cannibalize (in the sense of predating) more and more families, communities, ecosystems, public goods, etc.

In particular, without any historical novelty, the wild evolution of the capital system corrupts – now, in a decisive way – the most important commons that allow the existence of humanity. To capture this dimension, Fraser also employs the metaphor of the euroboros, the serpent that bites its own tail. According to her, it is an “adequate image, as this turns out to be a system that is programmed to devour the natural, social and political bases of its own existence” – and, thus, of human existence.

For Nancy Fraser – and this is her original contribution – it is necessary to radically abandon economism. Behold, for her, it is not enough to state that the economic structure only ultimately determines the superstructure; it is not enough to say that this structure only conditions the way of being of the institutional, social and cultural forms that constitute society and that these forms come about through many degrees of freedom. Differently, she deems it necessary to reformulate the very concept of capitalism.

Instead of taking it as referring only to the economic system, it should be considered that it apprehends the social system in a very comprehensive way: “in this book” – he says – “capitalism does not refer to a type of economy, but to a type of society” in which not only workers are exploited, but also in which resources in general are appropriated, whether from nature or from people not directly involved in production and mercantile circulation.

Capitalism, yes, is based on private ownership of the means of production and on transactions through markets and, thus, on wage labor and the continuous generation of more and more surplus value. Behold, the circuit M – D – M, which forms the appearance of the mode of production, is only a subordinate condition of the circuit M – M – M', which constitutes its essence.

But this so-called economic moment could not exist without the support of certain non-economic moments, such as the expropriation of the forces and materials of nature. But capital does not just take advantage of the gifts of planet Earth; he also makes use of the care, especially of women with the children, the house and the elderly, public goods always provided by the State and its users, energy, friendship, love and social creativity in general. All this is free for him, even if the cost for others is immense.

Karl Marx, in Communist Manifesto, saw capitalism as a source of disruptive progress before which even the solid would vanish into thin air. But this was a perspective that could only be sustained in the middle of the XNUMXth century, in the face of the extraordinary transformations of the first industrial revolution, which began in the second half of the XNUMXth century. And that promise was paid in a way.

In the XNUMXst century, however, the very progress of the productive forces has already been reversed into a constant threat of regression and destruction, in which crises no longer appear as self-surmounting episodes of capital accumulation itself, of economic growth heading towards the sky as see system economists. Well, what we have now is an organic crisis of capitalism that manifests itself in multiple ways, giving rise to mega-threats.

“What we are facing” – says Nancy Fraser in this regard – “due to the decades of financialization, is not 'only' an outbreak of enormous inequality, low wages, together with precarious work; one does not 'merely' have a failure in care and, thus, in social reproduction; one is not 'simply' in the presence of an immigration crisis and an exasperation of racial violence; it is not 'just' an ecological crisis in which global warming produces new lethal plagues; one is not facing 'only' a political crisis associated with militarism, the government of strong men and extreme right-wing ideologies; no, you have something worse: a general crisis of the social order as a whole in which all these calamities converge, exacerbating each other, in short, threatening to engulf everything”.

The summary that this last paragraph presents seems to be extremely relevant because it captures with good precision the historical situation of the XNUMXst century: it should be noted, by the way, that a multiple crisis such as it is enunciated there is much more than a sudden alteration in a course of evolution that can be worse or even better. It is a picture that points to an eventual failure of human civilization at some point in this decisive century. However – it must be emphasized – all this did not come about “due to the decades of financialization”.

Here, to begin with, is that financialization is a term that seems to signal an anomaly that has befallen an otherwise healthy economic system. In fact, as has been pointed out in other texts, the observed financial dominance, which has lasted for five decades in the globalization process – now in a retraction movement – ​​indicates that what Marx predicted in Book III of The capital as a tendency, that is, the diffusion of the socialization of capital, that is, of the collective form of ownership of capital.

This is how – he said in his greatest work – “the suppression of capital as private property within the limits of the capitalist mode of production itself” takes place. If private ownership of the means of production still predominates among small and medium-sized companies, corporate ownership is fully dominant among large monopoly companies, which account for the bulk of the capital invested in the production and trade of goods (goods or services destined for markets). This means that these companies, although commanded by industrial and commercial leaders, are in fact subordinated to the financial capital that now exists, mainly in the form of closed and open investment funds.

It should be noted that it is not just a matter of supervising industrial capital by banking and financial capital, of examining the profitability of industrial companies that need financing, something that comes from a long way back in the history of capitalism. No, it's much more than that. Currently, the second intervenes in the first to force him to make an ever greater effort to raise the rate of profit, something that has been called “management from the shareholder's point of view”. And this occurs because industrial capital has already lost a large part of the dynamism it had to increase relative surplus value. It is under this pressure that industrial companies promoted and continue to promote outsourcing, the precariousness of the workforce, the disqualification of products under flashy appearances and packaging, etc.

In the first chapter, Nancy Fraser seeks to update her critique of capitalism which, according to her, has been in recession since the end of the Soviet Union. She takes up her concept from Marx to redefine it as such: behold, this “totality in process” has ceased to be progressive and has become regressive; now it systematically destroys its own conditions of survival. Hence, it can no longer be thought of only as an economic system, but has to be understood as a total social system; hence it can no longer be seen as an ambiguous source of civilization and barbarism, but only and only as a cannibal monster.

Se The capital it is an unfinished work – Marx, for example, did not manage to develop the concept of the State –, for her, he failed to recognize the social-environmental conditions that sustain the economic system itself. Hence, he did not address issues of gender, race, ecology, political power as “axes that structure inequality in capitalist societies”. The second chapter of the book is dedicated entirely to showing “why capitalism is structurally racist”. His argument is that it is not only based on the exploitation of workers, but that it also needs to expropriate non-white populations in general, whether in the center itself or on the periphery.

In the third chapter, Nancy Fraser dedicates herself to explaining why crises do not occur only in the economic sphere, spreading from there to the rest of society only through monetary effects. Behold, the very sphere of social reproduction is also a place where specific crises occur, which should also be called capitalist. “The social system” – according to her – “is undermining the energies needed to maintain families, supply the home, support communities, nurture friendships, build political networks and forge solidarity”. Caring for others, she argues, are essential activities for maintaining society, but they are being systematically cannibalized by a capitalism that only moves for profit.

Ecopolitics and its urgency are rethought in the fourth chapter. Admitting that the climate issue is now on the agenda of many political actors on the left, center and even the right, assuming that denialism is in regression, albeit slowly, the author reviewed here argues in favor of an ecopolitical perspective that is “transenvironmental”. ” and anti-capitalist. The illusion, maintained by the environmentalist movement, that it is possible to overcome the ecological crisis, still maintaining capitalism, needs to be disfigured. Moreover, this movement – ​​according to her – needs to give up its unilateralism and insert itself in the counter-hegemonic bloc that fights to overcome capitalism. Well, it is only by saving humanity that the planet will be saved.

The awareness that we are currently facing a serious crisis of democracy, or rather, of the democratic promise, provides the theme of chapter five. The idea that it is merely necessary to reform political institutions to better support the “government of the people”, “is trapped – according to her – in an error that can be called politicism, in analogy with what is called economism”. It is no longer possible to deepen democracy under capitalism; liberal democracy is in continued recession. The title given to the chapter elucidates its intention to undermine belief in the really existing form of government; Fraser makes use of a rhetorical exaggeration to build it: “Breaking democracy: because the political crisis is the red meat of capital”.

Finally, in chapter six, this author provides what she considers “[wholesome] food for thought”. Behold, she is engaged in Elsa's struggle to save the presupposed subject from the historically posited automatic subject, that is, to save the human being from the devouring being that forms a system and is centered on the capital relationship. Therefore, it discusses, then, the meaning to be given to socialism in the XNUMXst century. “Socialism, too, is back” – she says; “but what exactly do we mean by socialism?” Just as she already proposed in her introduction an expansion of the concept of capitalism, she will also propose in this last topic of her book an expansion of the concept of socialism.

Socialism, according to her, cannot be seen only as an alternative economic system. In particular, it cannot be seen either as a new version of socialism that really did not exist in the former Soviet Union or in China today, or as an optimized version of social democracy. All this needs to be superseded. To that end, just as she expanded the concept of capitalism to include social reproduction, Fraser does the same with the concept of post-capitalism. “Socialism for the new time” – he explains – “must overcome not only the exploitation of salaried work, but also the expropriation suffered by unpaid work in care activities, public commons, individuals considered to be of an inferior race and nature itself”.

The critique of pseudo-socialisms has already been and continues to be made. The regret of the socialist project, in addition to the flaws that can now be pointed out in the inherited projects, is still indebted mainly to future generations. And it – points out Nancy Fraser – cannot continue in the condition of being just a utopian dream. No, he must be very realistic. It must, moreover, “encapsulate real historically emerging possibilities” that are there coexisting in the very mode of society that exists today: behold, according to her, there are “potentials for human freedom, well-being and happiness, which were placed by capitalism before of present-day humans, but which he himself is incapable of realizing”.

At this point it is necessary to see that the competition of capitals for markets forms a system of coordination that, for better or for worse, works globally. If another mode of production is going to replace capitalism – and this change is indeed necessary – another complex economic system needs to be put in place. And he can no longer depend on money, what nerve rerum of capitalist complexity. It needs, however, to solve the problem of the decentralized production of millions of different use values ​​and the distribution of the social product generated to billions of families in an efficient and effective way. There are currently important theoretical contributions in this direction, but they are not mentioned by Nancy Fraser.

In any case, risking a final synthesis here, it will be said that socialism for the XNUMXst century should not be thought of only as formed by “freely associated workers” according to Marx’s formula in the first chapter of The capital, but as a society constituted by “freely associated citizens” in a substantive democracy, without any discrimination based on type of activity, gender, color, religion and cultural heritage.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (Ed. anti-capital fights).


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