Nancy Fraser – The Multidimensional Crisis

Image: Valeria Podes


Considerations on the philosopher's new contributions to the critique of capitalism

At least since the 2008 global financial crisis, critical studies of capitalism have regained some intellectual importance, after having been relegated in previous decades, in the context of a particularly acute “crisis of Marxism”.

Bestsellers like Piketty's or new discussions about the post-capitalism (Mason; Srnicek and Willams; Bastani) demonstrate a new relevance of capitalism as an object of theoretically informed discussion. This scenario of new relevance of the critique of capitalism also makes possible a new period for Marxism. Suddenly, Marx's name can be quoted without “apology” in academic and even journalistic environments, just as socialism is rehabilitated – with some timidity – in the political arena.

It seems that the explosion of financial bubbles, followed by more than a decade of weak growth or economic stagnation, has brought back to the fore the need for a solid theory of capitalism to understand and intervene in the political conflicts of the present. Perhaps a new era of anti-capitalist intuitions will open, which could be deepened with the current pandemic, whose rapid spread may be linked to practices of environmental depredation and the planetary expansion of the profit-oriented economy.

The signs of the times point, it seems, to a rehabilitation of critical theories of capitalism. And that implies, in many ways, a new round of critical rereadings of Marx.

However, “revisits” are never simple repetitions. Traditional Marxism cannot simply be rehabilitated in one of its conceptions inherited from the XNUMXth century. Rather, it is about developing a new theory of capitalism that is up to the challenges of the present and, at the same time, is capable of thinking about the previous history of this social form in an illuminating way.

The new contributions of Nancy Fraser, an important philosopher in the field of critical theory of society, can be delimited by this context. If her previous work involved concerns such as economic redistribution and parity participatory, his new research makes capitalism as such the central object of study and criticism.

Fraser developed this new theory in a multitude of articles, most of them published in New Left Review, compiled and translated into Spanish in The hidden workshops of capital (Sueños traffickers, 2020), as well as in the book co-written by Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism in Debate: A Conversation in Critical Theory (Boitempo, 2020 [2018]). From my point of view, Fraser's expanded theory of capitalism allows us to revisit Marx's legacy with the feminist, postcolonial, democratic and ecological questions proper to a critical social theory at the height of the XNUMXst century.

A reading of the present: crisis of progressive neoliberalism

Nancy Fraser is a political intellectual who seeks to intervene in the present with programmatic visions and critical diagnoses. With Cinzia Arruzza and Titthi Bhattacharya, she wrote the well-known manifesto Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto [Boitempo, 2019], translated into many languages.

Perhaps less known, his theory of capitalism informs a critical diagnosis of the current moment. According to Fraser, we are experiencing a crisis of progressive neoliberalism as a political current (whose sign would be, in the context of the United States, the electoral victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton), marked by a general crisis of financial capitalism.

This situation marks the opening of a new period of instability and conflict at the global level. New populist rights emerge, proposing an authoritarian way out of the situation, which would aim to stabilize capitalism through recrudescent patterns of domination. Against this alternative, Fraser calls for the construction of a new alliance of emancipation and social protection, which overcomes the limits of progressive neoliberalism and confronts the conservative rights, enabling a transitional agenda that could go, at best, from partial reforms to some new form of anti-patriarchal and post-colonial socialism.

In the late 1990s, the philosopher characterized that context as post-socialist. The post-socialist condition would mark not only a time that would come after real socialism and its fall, but also a period of crisis of alternative to capitalism. At that moment, Fraser proposed to lucidly assume the historical moment, trying to think about it against the grain instead of thinking about it symptomatically.

With its perspective dualism of redistribution and recognition, it tried to produce a new alliance of socialist (or at least radicalized social democratic) policies and deconstructive or queer. According to the author, the drama of the post-socialist condition was the combination of a social regression of struggles for economic redistribution (defeats of unions, social legitimation of inequalities) and the systemic integration of contesting social movements (gestation of elitist, meritocratic and adapted currents to neoliberalism in feminist movements, LGBTQ, etc.).

Today, it updates the reading with a diagnosis of the crisis of progressive neoliberalism that led this double movement of deactivation and integration of social conflict a few decades ago.

Em fortunes of feminism (Sueños traffickers, 2015 [2013]), Fraser advances some considerations about his critique of progressive neoliberalism, using, however, the language of perspective dualism that corresponds to his previous theoretical framework (and which received numerous criticisms). During the 60s, she says, second-wave feminism joined other radical currents to overcome the social-democratic imaginary that had hidden gender oppression.

Overcoming the limits of the traditional left, he denounced the androcentrism implicit in post-war welfare states. After the initial energies of this wave passed, there was a growing abandonment of socialist ideals. The “struggles for recognition”, always according to Fraser, tended to be integrated into neoliberal agendas instead of functioning as complements to the struggle for economic equality. “A truncated economism was replaced by a truncated culturalism”.

Today, however, perspectives centered unilaterally on recognition would lack credibility due to the economic crisis, which marks the need for a less dualistic and more balanced policy between the redistribution and recognition agendas. This would be expressed in a renewed concern with economic inequalities within the social movements that resist any neoliberal modulation, as we saw in the new feminist wave, in anti-racist protests and in popular street eruptions, such as those that kept Chile on the brink of abyss last year.

The “progressive neoliberalism”, which Fraser has strongly criticized in recent years, grew out of the divide between economy-centered struggles (which he now calls “social protection struggles”), on the one hand, and struggles against cultural patterns of domination (which he now calls of “emancipatory”), on the other. This divorce between social protection and emancipation, for Fraser, left the way open for progressive fractions of the neoliberal elites to metabolize emancipatory demands on their own terms, producing a two-on-one alliance between commodification and emancipation (market liberalization plus individual freedoms) against the weakened social rights that were shaped in the welfare states (whose mark was the union between social protection and commodification against emancipation).

This has led to a combination of “progressive recognition and regressive redistribution”. Fraser maintains, in his contemporary thought, the critique of the divorce between redistribution and recognition in leftist politics, reformulated as a discussion with progressive neoliberalism. Now, however, she adds a new element: contemporary capitalism, and with it progressive neoliberalism, is in crisis.

The above also means that Fraser diagnoses a change of era. Instead of a post-socialist world of crisis of alternatives, we live in a world of multidimensional crisis of neoliberal capitalism. The crisis is not merely financial, but cuts across all institutional divisions in society. This multidimensional shudder, now diagnosed beyond all opposition between culture and economy, implies a break between capital accumulation and its non-commodified conditions of possibility, at all levels. This leads us to the second axis of Fraser's thought that I would like to highlight: the articulation of a plurality of social conflicts from the point of view of an expanded theory of capitalism.

Hidden abodes behind production: towards an extended theory of capitalism

N 'The capital, Marx exhorts us to leave behind the superficialities of the sphere of economic distribution and enter the hidden abode of social production. Seeking to highlight the unveiling gesture, Fraser finds new “hidden abodes” behind the production of value: social reproduction, nature, the expropriation of racial communities, politics. These spheres configure the internally differentiated social ontology of capitalism.

It is a single social order, but it does not have a single “all-embracing” social logic (for example, the accumulation of capital), but diversified logics according to institutional divisions that contain different normative criteria. Capitalism cannot be derived in its entirety from the logic of capital. Instead, it appears as an institutional order that links exploitation with racist and patriarchal domination, sharpens the separation between humanity and nature, and has a contradictory relationship with democracy.

Fraser departs from a Marxist approach to capitalism to build a broader characterization on this basis. Capitalism involves the division of society into classes, the buying and selling of labor power as a commodity, the compulsive dynamics of accumulation and the allocation of production factors through the market. These traits delimit the historical specificity of capital society, which characterize and differentiate it from other pre-existing social forms.

The four traits outlined above, however, do not fully specify the character of capitalism as a society structured around capital accumulation, although it cannot be reduced without residue to commodification. On the contrary, there are non-commercial conditions of possibility for the existence of capital, which, therefore, appears as a truncated subject of collective life, which has a blind and compulsive dynamic but also lacks autonomy, depending on relatively autonomous social instances to reproduce itself. .

Fraser questions the thesis of the capitalist universalization of the commodity form, with its objective and subjective standards, which, at least since Lukács, has characterized a good part of Marxism (not just orthodox). The author proposes us to think about capitalism in terms of “background conditions” (background conditions) of the valuation process. These background conditions also correspond to areas of social conflict in the contemporary world, so that the theory of capitalism is, at the same time, a theory of struggles and dynamics of antagonism in the neoliberal crisis.

the social reproduction

The first background condition, or institutional division of capitalism, that Fraser highlights, following feminist Marxism, is social reproduction. In capitalist society, the reproduction of the workforce is largely (although not entirely) carried out in a non-commodified framework, in the domestic sphere and predominantly by women.

Reproductive work guarantees the reproduction of the workforce, also including the processes of subjectivation that lead to the formation of communities and meaningful social interaction. The division between commodity production and social reproduction is a pervasive condition of capitalism. This institutional division belongs specifically to this society: in other historical societies, social and economic activity is directly oriented to production for subsistence, without separating value production from social reproduction.

Fraser argues that capitalism has a structural tendency towards social reproduction crisis. The systemic contradictions of capitalism do not only unfold within capital accumulation (falling rate of profit, overproduction, etc.). Capitalism has structural contradictions and tendencies towards crisis also in the interaction between the sphere of social reproduction and commodity production. The compulsion towards unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the process of social reproduction on which it, contradictorily, is based.

The combination of separation, dependency and rejection between the two circuits is a constant source of social instability, as the dynamics of accumulation tend to undermine the foundations of social reproduction which, at the same time, it presupposes as its institutional condition.

Expropriation and racism

The second institutional condition of capitalism is linked to imperialism and racism, which Fraser considers to be an integral part of capitalist society, as well as gender domination. Capitalism, as Fraser has argued for decades, does not suppress hierarchies of status. On the contrary, it politically marks some subjects as less-than-proletarians: subjects who can be the object of direct and violent expropriations by public or private means.

This separation is crossed by racialization and imperialism. The divisions between settlers and natives, between “whites” and racialized populations, constitute a lasting mark of the processes of capitalist expansion, which are based, therefore, not only on the exploitation of formally free labor, but also on the expropriation without compensation of workers. the “others of civilized man”.

The dynamics of racialization are organized internationally, delimiting global cores and peripheries of capitalism, while expropriation and exploitation sometimes coexist within the same state. The expropriation of communities, therefore, is not a past historical condition canceled out by the later history of capitalism. It is one of its constant mechanisms, an “accumulation by other means” of “gross confiscation”.

The separation between society/nature and ecology-world

The separation between exploitation and expropriation reduces a part of humanity itself to status of less than humans, that is, of mere nature available to be expropriated.

The identification of “natives” with nature is not casual or accidental. Capitalism institutes a dual relationship (of separation and annexation) with nature, which is linked to the global dynamics of expropriation and racism. Capitalists expropriate “free of charge” portions of nature located on their frontiers of expansion, treating them as freely available and usable matter, as a “free gift” that it is not necessary to compensate in terms of value. The constant annexation of nature, as a source of wealth and a garbage dump, accompanies the accumulation of capital in each historical cycle.

At this point, Fraser closely follows Jason W. Moore's developments in Capitalism in the web of life (2015). Capitalism, like any social form, organizes and produces through from nature. However, it creates a historically unprecedented division between society and nature (this separation has a previous history in the West, but with capitalism it reaches qualitatively new dimensions). In the long run, this also produces ecological contradictions.

Accumulation presupposes the free and in principle infinite availability of nature as a resource. But it also destabilizes the successive ecologies in which it is organized, increasingly undermining its own conditions of possibility. Once again, the contradictions of capitalism are not limited to capital accumulation. They include the contradictions between accumulation and its conditions of possibility or background, in this case, ecological conditions.

economics and politics

The last basic condition of capitalism is politics. Simply put, the exploitation of free labor presupposes a separate public power, which demarcates and facilitates contractual relations between individuals in the market. This configures a separation between economics and politics that is also specific to capitalism (in other historical societies it is normal to see political and economic power immediately merge).

The differentiation between economics and politics is therefore structurally necessary for capitalism. This leads to the contradiction between capitalism and democracy, which was the subject of Ellen Meiksins Wood. Class inequality and the compulsive logic of accumulation tend to constrain politics, which capitalism presupposes as relatively autonomous from the economy. Democratic legitimacy is then called into question or, rather, is periodically undermined by the imperatives of accumulation. This contradiction refers to the blind, “automatic” character of capital as a social subject that moves autonomously (with its compulsive logic of value that places value), on the one hand, and its political conditions of legitimation (founded on the ideals of equality and democratic self-determination of society), on the other.

Fraser deepened these theses in the article “Legitimation crisis?” (2015), in which Jürgen Habermas returns to analyze the political crisis of neoliberal capitalism. The author is particularly concerned with a series of social reactions to the legitimation crisis, which can give rise to conservative or reactionary attitudes, from “realistic” resignation to capitalism to adherence to “authoritarian populism”, capable of connecting with discontent. with the futility of politics in the face of the blind mechanisms of capital.

In these cases, the crisis of legitimacy seems to enter a catastrophic spiral where the tools to respond to the dynamics of capitalism (for example, public power) would be eroded by the dynamics of capital itself, leading the population to become disillusioned with democratic politics and to surrender power to authoritarian leaders who, ultimately, are called upon to make the whole situation worse.

Agency, structure and emancipatory perspectives

Above I tried to reconstruct how Fraser approaches the multiplicity of social conflicts of the present, from an expanded theory of capitalism capable of historicizing this social form. Fraser proposes to question capitalism (and, tendentially, to overcome it) from a radicalization of the democratic ideology that combines social protection and emancipation.

Finally, I will highlight how it articulates two tensions typical of any critical theory of society, namely: the tensions between agency and structure and between logic and history. Fraser reconstructs the history of capitalism from the successive provisional stabilizations of the institutional contradictions that constitute the social order. This marks a general structural constraint and a range of possibilities for action.

Within the framework of capitalist society, it is necessary to articulate the different institutional divisions in each era within the scope of their “logical core”, which is the accumulation of capital as a compulsive or blind necessity (if accumulation or any of its conditions of possibility is met). interrupted, the whole society goes into crisis). As long as capitalism is not overcome, the organization of the institutional order around the dynamics of valorization must be replaced in each historical phase. However, the precise terms of this articulation of the institutional order, the tracing of its limits at each step, are contingent and depend on social conflicts, successful or failed political initiatives and temporarily coagulated struggles.

The successive historical phases of capitalism are thus different modulations of a basic social order reconstructed above as a model. The specific terms negotiated in each of these phases depend, in turn, on the contingent encounter between capital accumulation and border struggles, which delimit the moving hinges and negotiable boundaries in the social order. Each transitory stabilization of capitalism thus implies a synthesis of agency and structure, in which diverse but structurally supportive ontologies are provisionally synthesized.

The different background conditions of capitalism have their own normative grammars and differentiated ontologies. Politics is not directly subordinated to the logic of the commodity, just as social reproduction is not simply governed by the dynamics of accumulation, etc. This does not mean that these varied institutional divisions are pure reservoirs of emancipatory normativity. They simply mark the internal heterogeneity and propensity for instability of the institutional order.

Capitalism “works”, in each era, to the extent that it articulates these differentiated social logics in a unitary framework, as a “necessarily contingent” and transitory articulation of heteroclite elements. The tense synthesis between agency and structure, condensed as a fragile institutional truce in each era of capitalism, is what also allows for the deployment of a strategic rationality: a left-wing programmatic intelligence that allows connecting social struggles to the greater dynamics of capitalism and its potential abolition. .

Reformulating Karl Polanyi's ideas, Fraser distinguishes a “triple movement” between commodification, social protection and emancipation, on whose resolution depends the periodic stabilization of the institutional order.

The Fordist cycle was marked by the alliance between social protection and commodification, to the detriment of social emancipation. Neoliberal capitalism, on the other hand, was possible thanks to an alliance between commodification and emancipation, which incorporated part of the emancipatory criticisms and demands of the social movements and the new left of the 60s, metabolizing them in individualistic and meritocratic formats. This marked a period of progressive neoliberalism in which the expansion of the market seemed to offer opportunities for domesticated versions of social movements.

Today, this neoliberal-progressive cycle has entered a crisis, within the framework of a general crisis of financialized capitalism. Right-wing populisms, but also the street explosions of anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism and, in general, protests against a life that is becoming unsustainable, are signs of an exhausted neoliberal capitalism that is heading towards a great transition.

The great transformation of the times that we are experiencing today is not necessarily progressive or post-capitalist, but it has contradictory potentialities. The explosion of political expressions at the extremes of the spectrum (right-wing populism against social movements with enormous developments in the streets) reveals the moment of crisis and the antagonism between their possible paths of resolution.

Systemic stabilization becomes possible when two of the three possible capitalist movements are allied, to the detriment of a third. In these cases it is possible to condense the dynamics of the struggle towards a provisional but viable social order. Perhaps the transition to a post-capitalist society begins with a similar two-on-one movement in ongoing social dynamics.

If it is possible to seize the historical moment before right-wing populisms and other authoritarian alternatives do, the key is to produce an alliance of social protection and emancipation that can articulate border struggles and class struggle in a series of non-national reforms. reformists whose final horizon is the overcoming of capitalism as a patriarchal, racialized and destructive institutional order for the sustainability of life.

*Facundo Nahuel Martin is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at University of Buenos Aires.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

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