Class Struggles and Border Struggles

Carmela Gross, PANTERA, series BANDO, 2016


Read an excerpt from the recently released book “Capitalism in Debate – A Conversation in Critical Theory”.

Rahel Jaeggi: Let's talk about the consequences of our broader view of capitalism with regard to the issue of social struggles. The traditional Marxist idea was that, in capitalist society, class struggle it was the most characteristic and potentially emancipatory form of conflict. This idea was based on a conception of history and how capitalism organized. You argued that today we are faced with border fights, a view that stems from his broader conception of capitalism as an institutionalized social order. How are border struggles related to the idea of ​​class struggle?

Nancy Fraser: It is true that my view of capitalism implies a conception of social struggle different from that which is widely associated with Marxism. By conceiving capitalism as something broader than an economic system, this conception makes visible and intelligible a broader spectrum of social contestation than the orthodox paradigms. Let me mention three specific ways in which the view of capitalism as an institutionalized social order enriches our understanding of social struggle.

First, this view reveals what are, in capitalist society, the structural bases of the axes of domination other than that of class. We have seen, for example, that gender domination is inscribed in the institutional separation between production and reproduction, as well as that domination in the axes of race, nationality and citizenship is inscribed in their separations between exploitation and expropriation and between center and periphery. This helps to explain why struggles around these axes often arise in the course of capitalist development. This can only appear as a mystery to approaches that equate capitalism with its official economy and identify its primary injustice with capital's exploitation of wage labor. The mystery dissolves, however, when capitalism is seen as an institutionalized social order based on foreground/background divisions. Seen in this way, the struggles against racism, imperialism and sexism respond to forms of domination that are as real, unjust and deeply rooted in capitalist society as those that give rise to class struggles. Perfectly intelligible responses to structural damage, they are neither expressions of “secondary contradictions” nor embodiments of “false consciousness”. So this is the first way in which my perspective expands our characterization of social struggle in capitalist society, that is, it reveals the importance of struggles around axes of domination other than class.

This idea, however, is made more complex by a second one, which calls into question the standard definition of “class struggle”. For orthodox Marxists, this struggle is centered on the conflict between work and capital, in which work is reduced to salaried work, especially on the premises of industrial factories. Those who do this work appear, as well as the capitalists who employ them, as paradigmatic protagonists of the class struggle. The iconic site of this struggle is “the point of production”, where the two sides meet face to face. It is believed that the struggles that originate there nurture the most advanced class consciousness and are the ones most likely to become revolutionary. In theory, they represent the deepest challenge to capitalism and have the greatest potential for emancipatory social transformation.

I take this view of class struggle as problematic because it excludes struggles over unpaid and expropriated labor. The latter are not considered class struggles, just as those who perform such work are not seen as “workers”. In my view, by contrast, the “hidden grounds” that support wage labor are domains of socially necessary work, while the dispossessed employed in these domains are “workers” whose struggles should be considered as class struggles. This holds true for those who replenish and reproduce the labor power on which exploitation depends, for those who cultivate confiscated resources directed towards accumulation, and for those who sustain historic habitats and nature on which commodity production depends. Indeed, their struggles often take place far from the point of production and are typically shaped by other axes of domination, including gender and race. However, they are often directed against portions of the capitalist class and its political agents and concern processes that contribute, at least indirectly, to the accumulation of surplus value. Broadly conceived, capitalism embraces an expanded vision of the “working class” and an expanded understanding of “class struggle”.

My view also broadens, in a third way, our view of class struggle in capitalist society. Inspired in part by Polanyi's thinking, it treats the institutional boundaries that constitute capitalism as likely sites and themes of struggle. What I have called “border struggles” do not emerge from “within” economics, but at the points where production meets reproduction, economics meets politics, and human society meets non-human nature. As foci of contradiction and potential crisis, these frontiers are both sites and subjects of struggle; they are, at the same time, locations where conflict emerges and objects of contestation. It is no surprise, then, that struggles over nature, social reproduction and public power so regularly arise in the course of capitalist development. Far from being a theoretical constraint, they are anchored in the institutional structure of capitalist society – as deeply anchored as class struggles in a limited sense, so that they cannot be neglected as secondary or superstructural.

In all three of these respects, therefore, an expanded view of capitalism implies an expanded view of social struggle in capitalist society. This point is of great practical importance. On the one hand, we should expect to find multiple forms of structurally anchored social conflicts that represent, at least in principle, pertinent responses to the crisis of capitalism and are potential sources of transformation. On the other hand, the struggles in question are heterogeneous and do not automatically harmonize or converge on a single trajectory, as the class struggle supposedly would in the orthodox view. Practically speaking, therefore, my view of capitalism offers both expanded perspectives and heightened challenges.

jaeggi: The concept of “frontier struggles” seems to me to be productive, and I find the whole picture you present fascinating. I'm still trying to understand, however, whether it corresponds to a addition to or to one replacement of class struggle. Certain strands in early critical theory suggested the latter notion – giving up, as it were, on the proletariat as the engine of history – although it remained open who would take its place. (Marcuse, with his focus on new needs and marginalized groups, was the only one who had a new revolutionary subject in mind.)[I] In any case, it is clear that you are not in favor of this gesture. So, what is the relationship between border struggles and class struggle in your conception? Would class struggle be a form of border struggle? Would border struggles be a type of class struggle?

Phrase: It follows from what I have said that border struggles are neither additions nor replacements for class struggles in a limited sense. Rather, this concept belongs in the same conceptual framework as the expanded view of class struggle I have just sketched, which also encompasses struggles over unpaid and expropriated labor, including social reproduction, and over the natural and political conditions that they support you. Border struggles overlap and intertwine with class struggles in this expanded sense, just as they overlap and intertwine with gender struggles and with struggles over racial oppression and imperial predation. Indeed, I would argue that the distinction is largely a matter of perspective. To use the expression “border struggles” is to emphasize how social conflict centers on (and contests) the institutional separations of capitalism. To use the (expanded) concept of class struggle is, by contrast, to emphasize the group divisions and power asymmetries that correlate with these separations. In many, if not all, cases, the same social struggle can be seen productively from both perspectives. In fact, I would say that in such cases it should be seen from both perspectives. To view it exclusively through the lens of class (or even that of gender or race) is to miss the underlying structural-institutional features of capitalist societies, with which domination is intertwined and through which it is organized. But the reverse is also true. To see such a struggle only from the frontier perspective is to miss the problematic social lines and domination relations originated by these institutional divisions.

That is, the distinction between class struggles and border struggles is analytical. In the real world, many social conflicts contain elements of both. To properly understand them, critical theorists have to take both perspectives into account., by asking whether the two divides, border and class (or gender or race), are operating. If so, do participants recognize and thematize both aspects? Or do they focus exclusively on one – emphasizing, for example, elements of class (or gender or race) and overlooking borders, or vice versa? Are these two elements in tension with each other, or are they harmonized? When we look at struggles in this biperspective way, we gain access to a whole new set of questions, which allow us to examine “the struggles and desires of our time” more deeply and critically.

Let's recall our discussion in Chapter 2 of struggles over social reproduction. There, we talk about the tendency of the first capitalist industrialization to undermine the possibilities of family life, the provisional solution offered by social democracy and its unfolding in contemporary financialized capitalism. At each stage, the boundary dividing social reproduction from economic production emerged as the main site and central theme of social struggle. Contestation, at each stage, falls squarely into the category of border struggles. However, these struggles intersect with and are overdetermined by the dividing lines of race/ethnicity, gender and class, now understood in a broader sense.

That is clearly the case today. At the present juncture, we find at least two distinct responses to the weakening of the frontier between social reproduction and economic production, undertaken by financialized capitalism. On one side of the spectrum, we find responses from the poor and working classes, who have made do as much as they can to care for their families in the interstices while working long hours at multiple low-paying McJobs. Some of them have joined populist movements that promise to protect them from a social machine that swallows their time, their energies and their ability to maintain social connections and reproduce a common life that they may recognize as good – or even human. On the other hand, we find responses from the professional-managerial stratum, which embody the affluent variant of the family with two wage earners, in which qualified women follow demanding professions, while passing on their traditional care work to low-paid immigrants or racial/ethnic minorities. . The result, as I said, is a dual organization of social reproduction: commodified for those who can pay for it and private for those who cannot, with some people in the latter group performing it for those in the former, for rather low wages. Those at the top pole move their lives more towards the economic side of the border – that of paid work – while those at the bottom pole shift their responsibilities more towards kinship and community networks, that is, towards the unpaid side. At both poles, struggles emerge around and on the borders that separate society, market and state. These struggles are overdetermined by class issues. Under the right conditions, the class dimension could become explicit, revealing the overlapping of class struggles with border struggles. In principle, this is how things should be. Indeed, I would argue that there is something wrong if a struggle with a clear class dimension is not politicized in these terms. Important aspects of the situation are distorted or suppressed if the class dimension is not made explicit.

jaeggi: This raises the possibility that social movements will emerge but fail to deal with these kinds of tensions and contradictions with an adequate vocabulary. Would you say that all these conflicts and all these contradictions Have to be expressed as class struggles so that they are expressed correctly?

Phrase: My answer is “yes” and “no”. When the class element of struggles is suppressed – say, by something in the prevailing political culture – and it doesn't become their explicit focus, something is wrong. Among other things, this opens the door to scapegoating and other regressive forms of political expression. Still, this does not mean that every social struggle has to be expressed only ou Above all as a class struggle – at least not in the narrow and orthodox sense.

In the example we just discussed, the class element is deeply intertwined with a strong gender component. As we know, the capitalist division between production and reproduction is historically gendered, and the negative consequences of this gender division have not disappeared; on the contrary, they were remodeled in different periods of the history of capitalism. This division is also crossed by the dimensions of race, ethnicity and nationality, since it is usually immigrants and people of color who are burdened with precarious and low-paid care work that was previously the unpaid responsibility of middle-class white women. However, to say that the problem has a crucial element of class is not to revert to an oversimplified view that class is the “real” problem, while race and gender are epiphenomena. On the contrary, I would also insist on the reverse of what I just said about class: when gender and racial/ethnic/national dimensions are suppressed, something has gone very wrong.

jaeggi: There seem to be dimensions to border struggles that cannot be encompassed by the class vocabulary, given that it would not make sense to translate them as class struggle.

Phrase: Well, as I said earlier, gender and racial/ethnic domination are as pervasive and entrenched in capitalist society as class. So, we should expand your question to encompass these problematic social lines as well. In any case, I will respond by returning to Chapter 3's discussion of the need to integrate several different genres of criticism. The implication there was that there were multiple and overdetermined reasons for criticizing the main institutionalized separations of capitalism, reasons that embody all the various strands of criticism we discussed in that chapter. One of the reasons I underlined is directly related to class, that is, capitalism has normatively unjustifiable structures of domination around class lines, but also around other axes that intersect: gender, race/ethnicity, nationality. This was the “moral” critique of capitalism, which takes aim at its inherently unfair or incorrect character. The other two reasons I gave do not directly concern class or any other relations of domination. First, the capitalist way of organizing social life is inherently prone to crisis in several dimensions: ecological, economic, political and social. This is the so-called functionalist critique. Second, capitalism subjects everyone, not just the dominated, to the blind and coercive force of the law of value, depriving all of us of our freedom to organize life's activities and consciously establish connections with past and future generations and with nature beyond our control. human. This is criticism based on “freedom”.

As I said, neither the functionalist nor the freedom-based critique is explicitly about class—nor, for that matter, about race and gender. Crisis and heteronomy affect everyone. Still, they carry class dimensions – but also race and gender. The most acute expression of the crisis falls disproportionately on the poor and working classes, especially on women and people of color. These populations are the most harmed by the denial of collective autonomy. This suggests to me that, although the three critiques are analytically distinct, in social reality the conditions targeted by them are entirely intertwined. Practically speaking, the question of class injustice cannot be completely separated from the questions of crisis and freedom. It all needs to be addressed together, as do the other axes of injustice in capitalism, including gender, race/ethnicity, and imperialism.

jaeggi: We both reject an "essentialist" conception of boundaries, whereby some given criterion such as "the conditions of human nature" could be used to dictate how the various spheres are to be separated or related to one another and to delimit the domain suitable for each of them. However, if we reject the essentialist version, does that not mean that even a “classless society” (if we get to have one) would still have legitimate political conflicts going on over borders? These conflicts can occur under different conditions, but it seems that part of what it means to live in a democratic society would still be having to constantly negotiate and renegotiate these boundaries, even if the class conflicts had been resolved.

Phrase: I agree that a democratic and classless society would not be a society without tensions, disagreements or conflicts. I would add that such a society would provide its members with many issues on which to disagree – for example, our relationship to non-human nature, the organization of work, its relationship to family, community life and political (local) organization. , national, regional and global). In fact, such disagreements would be more explicit than they are now, because these matters would be treated as political issues, which would be submitted to democratic resolutions, instead of being furtively handed over to capital and “market forces”, which are protected from confrontation by preexisting and non-negotiable borders. And that's the point. The institutional structure of capitalism removes all these issues from democratic contestation and resolution. Even on those occasions when it allows us to address them, the terms of the debate are very skewed, tainted by all the problematic lines of domination we have discussed, not to mention the public spheres dominated by a profit-oriented corporate media and the entry of the public. private money in elections. So, a post-capitalist alternative would not lead to the elimination of such contestation (and, indeed, it should not eliminate it!); would probably extend it, but would guarantee much more suitable terms for processing and resolving disagreements.

This, of course, still leaves open the question of what a post-capitalist alternative should look like. It is often said, and I agree, that critical theory cannot decide this in advance. Many of the specific features of a “good society” have to be left to the imagination and wishes of the participants. Still, some things are clear. First, no acceptable “solution” can come from the back of any identifiable stratum of the population, be it defined by class, race/ethnicity, gender, or any other entrenched relationship of domination.

Second, the relationship between economics/politics is particularly crucial and needs to be considered with nuance and care. We need to take up Marx's famous critique of how this division operates to protect capital in a bourgeois society. I have in mind your essay On the Jewish Question, in which he criticizes a “merely political” emancipation that expels the entire economic process from the realms of political life, while presenting the resulting domination as “democratic”[ii]. This criticism is often reduced to the idea that Marx took bourgeois rights for granted and neglected them as just another layer of ideology. I find this reductive reading irritating, as this was by no means his objective. I think this is a very powerful and revealing critique that must inform our critical theory of capitalist society.

Nevertheless, our critique also has to be informed by a contrary consideration, which I draw from the experience of Soviet-type “really existing socialism”. These regimes simply attempted to “liquid” the capitalist divide between politics and economics by establishing command economies run by the Party-State, which proved disastrous in many ways. We can extract from this the lesson that there is no way to live with the capitalist form of the division between politics/economy that exists today, but that there is also no way to live by liquidating it completely. We have to consider alternatives to both extremes – for example, democratic planning, participatory budgeting or market socialism, combining “political” and “economic” forms of coordination. I remember a brilliant essay by Diane Elson from 1988 that outlined some pretty interesting ideas about this.[iii].

The left needs to devote much more attention to these issues, and the same is true of parallel themes concerning the divide between production/reproduction and human society/non-human nature. You cannot simply liquidate these divisions. On the contrary, they need to be reimagined in order to detach themselves from domination, increase collective autonomy and make the forms of life they structure less antagonistic towards each other.

Border struggles and contemporary social movements

jaeggi: Let's shift our focus to the nature of these struggles. What are such struggles in relation to these institutionalized separations and spheres? We can understand the idea of ​​border struggle in a few ways. One conception could be quite close to Habermas' colonization thesis. We have these various institutionalized spheres – economic, political, reproductive, etc. –, and border struggles occur when one “invades” the other, which tries to stop it. We can also envision a more radical type of border struggle. In this view, struggle would not just be a matter of protecting the lifeworld from colonization or, say, the political and economic spheres – we have already discussed reasons for finding this image problematic. Rather, she would be more proactive about the “shape” of these spheres, where to draw or redraw the lines between them, or even whether there should be a line. As we noted, the feudal order did not have the same kind of separation between economy and politics, state and society. It is a specific feature of bourgeois capitalist society that the economy is seen as something distinct, and it is against the background of this initial drawing of boundaries that certain denials are ideologically established to make the market economy appear as if it were entirely independent.

So what form is it about? Do border struggles have to do with struggles against otherwise clear border encroachments, or is it a struggle over whether it would be reasonable to draw the line differently, re-politicize the economy, or bring it back to a different mode? richer of social life?

Phrase: All alternatives. Frontier fights appear in several modes, including the ones you introduced. they can be defensive, aiming to repel an invasion, an incursion or a slide across a border, which is experienced as problematic. Defensive struggles arise in cases where people are more or less satisfied with an existing or past arrangement that is being eroded and find themselves "very cornered". They want to re-establish the frontier where it was before. However, this does not exhaust the concept. There are also border fights offensive. The neoliberal project aimed precisely at extending the domain of issues subject to the economic logic of market relations, and some anti-systemic movements responded offensively, not just trying to defend the old frontier, but trying to push it a little further in the other direction, so as to bringing matters formerly treated as “economic” into the domain of the “political”.

*Nancy Fraser is a teacher at New School University (USA).

* Rahel Jaeggi is a teacher at Humboldt University of Berlin.


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


[I] Herbert Marcus, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, Beacon, 2000 [1969]).

[ii] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” [1843], in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, v. III (London, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), p. 146-74 [ed. braz.: On the Jewish Question, trans. Nélio Schneider, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2010].

[iii] Diane Elson, “Market Socialism or Socialization of the Market?” New Left Review, v. 172, 1988, p. 3-44.

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