Capitalism in Debate – A Conversation in Critical Theory

Regina Silviera, "Cascades, installation.


Commentary on the book by Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi

The book by Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi was published in Brazil in 2020, but it does not seem to have received the repercussions it deserved. Below we will summarize the broad conception of capitalism proposed by the authors.

The work is more like an interview with Fraser, conducted by Jaeggi, who offers a little of his own view on the issues in question. The declared objective is the formulation of an expanded theory of capitalism, capable of articulating central ideas of Marxism with those of new paradigms, of feminist, ecosocialist, postcolonial studies.

The authors start from the assumption that, despite the varieties of capitalism, there are core characteristics that make it possible to distinguish capitalist from non-capitalist societies. That is, there would be a common denominator from which to apprehend existing capitalisms, the theoretical challenge would be to delimit this core. Task that Fraser will undertake from the conceptualization of capitalism on two planes. The main plan, which contemplates the capitalist economy, bringing together its enduring / structural elements; and the background, which encompasses the spheres of expropriation, social reproduction, the political sphere and that of non-human nature.

In this scheme, the economy would not be a determining sphere, not even in the last instance, since it can only exist in conjunction with the background spheres. And it's not about the dialectic inside and outside, the two plans would be inside, intertwined. In addition, Fraser warns that an expanded theory of capitalism in a purely national scope, of the territorial State, would be inconceivable, the understanding of world geopolitics (of imperialism), of its phases, would be indispensable, however this aspect was not much explored in the conversation between the authors.

The exposition begins with the definition of the foreground, in the way that the authors call “orthodox”, and then, through the approach of the background spheres, “unorthodoxizes” the definition of capitalism. The elements of the foreground would be: (1) private ownership of the means of production and division into classes (owners and non-owners of the means of production); (2) free labor as the dominant form; (3) dynamics of accumulation oriented towards valuing value, rather than satisfying social and consumer needs; (4) market allocation of productive inputs and social surplus.

It is a generic definition of the capitalist economy, enhanced by Fraser's considerations (following Marx) on the two meanings of free labor, on expropriated / unpaid labor, the place of markets in the definition of capitalism, the role of the superstructure in constitution of the capitalist economy. Fraser further emphasizes the situation of bracket of social agents, capitalists and direct producers at the mercy of capital's drive “for endless self-valorization”, in a movement in which: “(…) capital itself becomes the Subject. Humans are its pawns, reduced to figuring out how to get what they need in the interstices, feeding the beast” (p. 32).

Regarding the background, the definition of the sphere of expropriation follows Harvey (the new imperialism, Loyola), but Fraser highlights the racial and gender relations present in the expropriation files. The sphere of social reproduction, in line with Marxist feminist studies, encompasses activities aimed at the production of people (labor force), performed mostly by women and here Fraser also emphasizes gender/race issues, in addition to the production of subjectivities. The political sphere concerns, firstly, the modern social contract, which defines direct owners and producers as legally free and equal individuals, a principle that will guide the organization of the free labor market, without which the capitalist economy could not exist. With regard to the sphere of nature, Fraser discusses the capitalist advance over nature as a condition for its expansion, but argues that criticism of this destructive movement should not deny scientific-technological progress translated into social well-being.

The author also affirms the historicity of the capitalist mode of production, contrary to the theses that define it based on mercantile activity or the value appreciation movement. For Fraser, “the organization of production through the exploitation of labor as an engine that generates surplus value” would be much more crucial to the definition of capitalism than the market (p. 33-34). It is not a matter of denying the role of markets, but rather of demarcating the historicity of the capitalist mode of production, which, in addition to mercantile/commercial capital and banking-financial capital, requires capital itself as a social relationship – productive-industrial capital .

It is worth insisting that, for Fraser, the economy (the main plan) would not be the determining sphere. Nor, she warns, should we understand her proposition from the pair main contradiction and secondary contradiction. No, the foreground would bring together the elements without which it would be inconceivable to speak of capitalism, however its concrete existence and reproduction would depend on the background.

Finally, it is essential to note that Fraser maintains that capitalist society faces “an evident structural crisis”, a situation marked by a large mismatch between the dimension of the crisis and social conflicts in all spheres of the “institutionalized social order”, as the author calls the capitalism. That is to say, despite the seriousness of the crisis, social conflicts still do not allow for a glimpse of an “emancipatory resolution” (p. 25). In this field, Fraser extends the broader view of capitalism to class struggles, seeking to value combats around axes other than those of classes, but which would have the same relevance or even be understood as class struggles.

As a compass, the two-plan scheme seems to us to be quite productive for the analysis of capitalism as a social totality, with the advantage of incorporating current themes related to background spheres. However, we would propose a small adjustment: the transposition of the political sphere to the main plan and we would justify it based on Fraser's own statements that private ownership of the means of production and the market economy would not exist without the political sphere: “[ …] Historically, we can say that the State constitutes the capitalist 'economy'” (p. 54-55).

We would say that it constitutes and maintains, being pertinent to bring the political sphere to the main plan, escaping any identification of the economic as a determinant. That is, we defend that the main plane, perennial and existentially articulated to the background, be apprehended as the relationship of reciprocal correspondence between the economic and political spheres.

Thus, we would have the constitutive elements of the main plan, presented by the authors: private property/division into classes; predominance of free work; dynamics of accumulation as a movement of valorization (“endless”) of value; allocation via the market of inputs and social surplus. A general characterization that does not fail to contemplate the relations of production/productive forces, but this is not the central issue in the definition of capitalism, since the authors want to move away from “orthodox Marxism” by focusing on the complementarity between the two plans .

With regard to the political sphere, on our own, we identify as constitutive elements, capitalist law and the related modern form of organization of the body of State employees (hierarchical-meritocratic), in addition to the state monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. This is how we would define, at the analytical level, the main plane: a relationship of reciprocal dependence between the economic and political spheres in articulation with the background spheres.

In Fraser's scheme, no progress is made in the precision of the spheres of the background, only lasting traits are indicated: modesty in the implementation of the liberal contract, expropriation of goods and rights, unequal relations between center and periphery, structural racism and machismo, destruction of environment. We understand that this occurs because the three background spheres (withdrawal of politics) – expropriation, reproduction and nature –, although indispensable to capitalism, do not demand developed concepts, but the analysis of concrete situations, configured in the articulation with the plan main and with each other.

Marx, in Book I of The capital, in going from exploitation to expropriation, turned to history and that is how we must proceed in the analysis of the background spheres, always starting from the articulation with the main plan. In peripheral countries, stories of concrete situations strongly permeated by the problems of colonialism-imperialism.

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



Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi. Capitalism in Debate: A Conversation in Critical Theory. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020, 256 pages.


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