What's wrong with capitalism?

Image: Karolina Grabowska.


A central defect of capitalism is its tendency to crisis – its tendency to cannibalize its own assumptions and thereby periodically generate rampant and massive-scale misery.

Criticism of capitalism

The chapter on the “critiques of capitalism” in the book Capitalism in Debate – A Conversation in Critical Theory (Boitempo), is based in large part on the work of my co-author, Rahel Jaeggi. In earlier chapters of the book (ie, “Conceptualizing Capitalism” and “Historizing Capitalism”), I discussed what capitalism is and how we should understand its history. But the next question consists of the questions: what is wrong (if anything wrong with it) with capitalism? How are we to criticize him?

A central defect of capitalism is its tendency to crisis – its tendency to cannibalize its own assumptions and thereby periodically generate rampant misery on a massive scale. Therefore, the “criticism” that aims to reveal the contradictions or crisis tendencies built into the system is important. Its strength lies in showing that the misery resulting from crises is not accidental, but the necessary result of the constitutive dynamics of the system. In recent years, however, this type of criticism has been censored. It has been rejected, along with Marxism, under the accusation that it would be “functionalist”, that is, it would be an economic-reductionist and determinist critique.

I don't deny that some forms of Marxism deserve these labels, but let's not throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater. The times we live in cry out for a critique of capitalism's deeply ingrained crisis tendencies, whose actualizations are now painfully obvious. Therefore, I have tried to reconstruct the crisis critique in a way that is not vulnerable to these objections. By highlighting non-economic (ecological, social, political) crisis trends, I have avoided economic reductionism. And by emphasizing the opening up of interregnum periods, when hegemony breaks down and thus political imagination and freedom of action expand, I have avoided determinism.

But, as Jaeggi emphasizes, capitalism can also be criticized on normative grounds. Unlike Marx, I would not hesitate to use the morally charged term “unjust” to describe this social system. Here, he brings into being multiple forms of structural domination through which a group of people flourishes thanks to the oppression of others. The Marxist account of class domination, based on the exploitation of wage workers (twice free) by capitalists in the sphere of production, is certainly the case.

Gender domination is equally entrenched in capitalist society. And the same is true of racial and imperial oppression when exploitation and dispossession are taken into account. These injustices are as structural as class domination; none of them are secondary or incidental. In general, then, I hold to an expanded view of capitalism as an institutionalized social order, which also requires an expanded normative critique. The injustices inherent in this social system are multiple.

Finally, Jaeggi explores the potential of an ethical critique of capitalism. This kind of critique is also normative, but no longer because it focuses on the inherent injustices of capitalism. Its focus, instead, is on the “evilness” of the system, its entrenchment in alienation and reification, which prevent us from living a good life. In other words: capitalism is a bad way of life – not because some people are robbing others, not because some are swimming in murky waters and thus sinking, but because all of these get in the way and block our ability to live well.

Of course, it is notoriously difficult to clarify what all this means – and to do so in a way that is not biased or sectarian, that is not, for example, Eurocentric. Jaeggi thinks she found a good way to do it. Personally, I'm not so sure, although I agree that we should try. It would be a great loss if we were forced to abandon the critique of capitalist society as inherently alienating, passively accepting such bad ways of life.

Criticism based on the idea of ​​“freedom” is a way of worrying without assuming a concrete vision of the good life. The idea is that capitalism necessarily reinforces heteronomy and prevents autonomy; it is an inherently undemocratic social form. Capitalist societies remove a wide range of fundamental issues from collective democratic decision-making. They leave it to capital, or rather to those who own capital or dedicate themselves to its unlimited expansion, to determine the basic grammar of our lives. This economic elite decides what will be produced, how much and by whom; on what energetic basis and through what specific types of social relations.

As a result, they determine the shape of relations between those who work in production and between them and those who do not, including their employers on the one hand and their families on the other. Furthermore, capital investment dictates relationships between families, communities, regions, states and collective associations, as well as our relationships with non-human nature and future generations. All these issues are taken off the agenda and decided behind our backs. By putting them in the hands of capital owners and investors, capitalism institutionalizes heteronomy. And so it denies everyone else the collective ability to shape their own lives. In general, then, a freedom-based critique directs our attention to the grammar of life, including this “badness” we have under capitalism. But, it avoids getting involved with the definition of what is good and what is bad concretely. Instead, it leaves it up to socialist citizens to work out for themselves.

The Challenge of Capitalism

The last chapter of the book mobilizes all previous conceptual work to analyze the current situation. Its practical objective is to reveal the potential of our situation to seek an emancipatory social transformation. Therefore, it is a critical theorization similar to that of the young Marx, that is, an effort of “self-clarification of the struggles and desires of the time”. The task is, in part, to diagnose the contradictions and difficulties, but also to identify the social forces that can coalesce around a counter-hegemonic project that could overcome them.. The chapter examines the various social struggles that surround us with this goal in mind.

This interest in the issue of an emancipatory subject guides my thinking. For me, for this reason, it is the best way to attract potential participants to the constitution of a counter-hegemonic bloc, a force that can emerge with an emancipatory project in mind. Everything I've said up to this point implies that the project must be anti-capitalist – in an expanded sense.

For struggles over care, nature, race, and politics are as deeply rooted in capitalist sociability as are struggles against exploitation in the sphere of production. For me, an anti-capitalist bloc must articulate the concerns of feminists, environmentalists, anti-racists, anti-imperialists and radical democrats, with each other and with the labor movements. But this still leaves open the question of how to interpellate the relevant actors. What kind of subjective approach would be best to invite them to embrace this understanding of change and fight together for the project that will make it a new reality?

It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first avoids the idea of ​​a single agent of emancipation. In place of an overarching subject that simply includes the various constituents of the bloc, it envisages an alliance of multiple agents whose primary concerns differ but are nevertheless rooted in the same social system, which none of them can change on their own. What unites them is not a common subject position, but a shared understanding of capitalist society as the deep source of the various problems and the common enemy. This diagnosis sustains solidarity and motivates cooperation.

This view has some obvious advantages. Not only is it in line with widespread leftist suspicions of “Leninism”, but it is relatively undemanding and non-threatening: it does not require social actors to change their existing political identities, only their cognitive diagnoses. I wonder, however, whether this reliance on cognitive “glue” as opposed to affective “glue” might also be a weakness. Would such a goal be strong enough to hold the bloc together? In particular, if one considers the inevitability of the stratagems inherent in capitalism that seek to protect it through a clever mix of attractive incentives and repressive sticks?

A second possibility might provide a stronger “glue,” but it would be harder to sell. The idea here is to approach the same set of social forces that we have just identified, but in a slightly more unified way: as constituents of an expanded working class, albeit with differently positioned parts of the social structure. This idea also stems from the expanded view of capitalism, which reveals the structural dependence of capital on social-reproductive and expropriated work, as well as on exploited work.

If accumulation requires all three types of labor, then all three types of “workers” constitute the working class of capitalism. Now, that also includes the large number of people who do jobs that fall into more than one of these three types. Seen in this way, the working class becomes constitutively generalized as well as inherently global; moreover, it finds itself discriminated against as if it were an “inferior race”. Unlike standard views, which focus on men of majority ethnicity who work in factories, mines, and construction, the expanded working class also includes people of color, women, and migrants; housewives, peasants and service workers; those who receive a salary and those who earn nothing.

The advantage here is to have a political subject that can plausibly claim to be constituted as unity and generality, while remaining internally differentiated and able to accommodate specificities. The effect of this “glue” would be the strengthening of solidary cohesion forming an anti-capitalist counter-hegemonic bloc. But this approach is considerably more demanding – it requires a cognitive-affective leap beyond many people's current self-understanding. Perhaps the strong performance of Bernie Sanders in two presidential campaigns in the United States has shown that this leap is not impossible, at least in relatively favorable conditions.

But, of course, there is no way to predict whether either of these two scenarios will hold true in the course of history, assuming they do in fact come to pass.

Social movements

I begin by noting that recent interventions by social movements, both progressive and regressive, are unfolding in a hegemonic vacuum. So the political field is incredibly messed up. Antonio Gramsci expressed this situation well: “the old is dying, but the new cannot be born. In the interregnum all kinds of morbid symptoms appear.” One could ask for a better characterization of the current situation!

Now, regarding the frankly regressive side of this historical field, I want to make two heretical remarks. First, supporters of the right-wing movements and parties you mentioned are looking to their nations, or rather to certain strong men who personify those nations, for social protection against the forces that are destroying their lives, forces that they don't understand. correctly or fully. Thus, these parties and movements, however misguided and authoritarian they may be, embody a revolt against neoliberal common sense – against the repeated mantra ad nauseum and for decades, that only markets can free us, that state power is not the solution to anything – but rather the problem that needs to be tackled. Implicitly, then, even the scariest right-wing movements harbor a reassessment of the role of public power. Well, a politically sophisticated left could also build an alternative…

Second, there is something hollow about the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, Salvinie and so on. These figures remind me of “The Wizard of Oz”. They are like showmen who flaunt and strut before the curtain, while true power lurks behind it. The real power is, of course, that of capital: the mega-corporations, big investors, banks and financial institutions whose insatiable thirst for profit condemns billions of people around the world to atrophied and shortened lives.

Furthermore, such showmen have no solutions to their supporters' problems; they sleep with the very forces that created them. All they can do is distract the population with stunts and shows. As the impasses worsen and their “solutions” fail to materialize, these front men are driven to up the ante with ever more bizarre lies and vicious scapegoats. This dynamic tends to build until someone pulls back the curtain and exposes the hoax.

And this is precisely what the mainstream progressive opposition has failed to do. Far from unmasking the powers behind the curtain, the dominant currents of the “new social movements” became entangled in them. I am thinking of the liberal-meritocratic wings of feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, environmentalism, etc., which operated for many years as junior partners in a “progressive neoliberal” bloc that also included “forward-thinking” sectors of global capital (intelligence). artificial, finance, media, entertainment). So, they also served as front forces, albeit in a somewhat different way, which is to say, casting a veneer of emancipatory charisma over the predatory political economy of neoliberalism. I'm tempted to call this a "rainbow wash" because it combines pink wash with green wash and more.

But however we call such actions, the result was not emancipatory. Not “only” because this unholy alliance devastated the living conditions of the vast majority and thus created the soil that nurtured the right. In addition, it associated feminism, anti-racism, etc. with neoliberalism, guaranteeing it a defense. When the dam finally breaks and the popular masses come to reject this political program, they will also reject those who should be its opposite. And that's why the main beneficiary, at least so far, has been reactionary right-wing populism. It is also why we are now stuck in a political impasse; we are caught in a mock and diversionary battle between two groups of rival players, one regressive and the other progressive, while the powers behind turn to the banks themselves. Going back to Gramsci, I would say that “the new cannot be born” until we pull back the curtain and build a left that is totally anti-capitalist.

The counter-hegemonic alliance

Some comments are in order here on three key terms: separation, realignment and populism. Let me start with “separation”. In fact, I am proposing a strategy that encompasses two separations: one that ends the progressive neoliberal alliance I just described; and another that overthrows the reactionary neoliberal bloc that opposes him. The first separation requires separating most women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and environmentalists from the liberal corporate forces that have held them hostage for decades. The second involves the division of right-wing base segments that could, in principle, be won over to the left. The separate elements on both sides would then be available for further realignment.

Of course, this strategy is also based on heresy. He rejects the reigning liberal common sense that says fascists are on the doorstep, so leftists should shelve their radical ambitions, move to the center and close ranks with liberals. He also takes issue with the oft-repeated view that current polarizations are so entrenched that there is no chance of moving majority working-class voters away from the right. Both views are wrong and counterproductive.

The first consists of a scare tactic. And it was used in the US last year to prematurely remove Bernie Sanders from the Democratic presidential primaries. The second is disabling, as it is a recipe for defeat. As I see it, this is a moment of division, not unity, because the fascists are not really at the door. And the only way to keep them out of power is to offer their working class supporters a progressive anti-capitalist alternative. Likewise, current alignments aren't really set in stone. On the contrary, voters are highly volatile; they try different political stances to see what works. In the US, for example, a large portion of those who voted for Trump in 2016 had previously voted for Obama and/or Sanders; then they returned to a Democratic option, in 2020.

In Brazil, similarly, many supporters of Jair Bolsonaro had previously voted for Lula and Dilma Rousseff; now, they are ready again to vote for Lula. Similar trajectories were observed in Great Britain, France and Italy. Against a thesis of progressive neoliberal ideology, many right-wing voters are not principled “racists” but merely “opportunistic racists”: they vote for a de facto racist when no one else is offering an option on behalf of the working class. So the game can potentially change. It would be the height of folly to classify them as “deplorables” instead of trying to court them.

This brings me to the realignment. Let us assume that the key components of any new political bloc are the split elements just described. What could motivate them to come together? Where is the "glue" that is strong enough to overcome the intense animosity that now divides them?

One possibility, invoked in the book, is left-wing populism. But my understanding of this policy option differs from that of other thinkers, including Chantal Mouffe. For me, populism is not an inherent feature of politics as such, nor is it a desirable political goal. Rather, it is a transitional formation that often arises in situations of hegemonic crisis. It is centered on the rejection of ruling elites and can take two main forms. Right-wing populism that combines opposition to elites with demonization of a despised underclass, while valuing “the people” caught in the middle of these two poles.

Left populism targets the top primarily, refrains from scapegoating the bottom, and defines “the people” inclusively, encompassing both the middle and the bottom. That's a big difference between the two variants. Right-wing populism, moreover, identifies its enemies in concrete identity terms – such as, for example, Muslims, Mexicans, blacks or Jews. In contrast, left populism defines its enemies numerically – for example, the top 1% of the income scale or the billionaire class. On both these issues, left-wing populism is vastly preferable to its right-wing counterpart. But this is not analytically accurate. To really understand what's going on requires a much more refined class analysis; the concept of capital and the expanded vision of capitalist society are required.

For me, then, left-wing populism harbors both possibilities and limitations. On the possibility side, it can sometimes serve as a transitional formation that wins victories, broadens its reach, deepens its social critique, and becomes more radical. But it can educate people in the course of the struggle, clarifying what system they are actually fighting and explaining exactly how that system has been "rigged". My guess is that left-wing populism offers an accessible entry point into the class struggle. I am less sure that it can generate genuine insight into how the system really works and what really needs to be done to change it.

This is why I am now inclined to contemplate the prospects of a successor formation to left-wing populism – I think of an “analytically more precise” and politically more demanding perspective.

One possible perspective, which in the United States some call "democratic socialist," invites potential participants to see themselves as members of an expanded working class in the sense defined above. The requirement would be to satisfy two imperatives that are often opposed as incompatible, but which must be accommodated simultaneously: first, the need to cultivate a robust sense of shared class belonging, based on a common systemic enemy; and second, the need to recognize the reality of internal differentiation both along the axis of class – but especially along the axes of gender, race and nation.

If that seems difficult, it is not impossible – thanks to the expanded view of capitalism that has been briefly elaborated here. This view postulates that there must be a single social system that feeds on the divisions it creates between the exploited, the dispossessed and the domesticated – and various combinations of these. A realignment based on this understanding would be a powerful force for emancipatory transformation.

In any case, my current view is that left populism is a relatively spontaneous response to the crisis. As such, it can and should be worked on. But it is better understood as a transitional crossing point on the way to a more radical emancipatory project. The latter, I maintain, must be anti-capitalist in the expanded sense.

*Nancy Fraser is a professor of political and social sciences at New School University. She is the author, among other books, of The old man is dying and the new one cannot be born (Literary Autonomy).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Text established from an interview given to Lara Monticeli during the annual meeting of the research network “Alternatives to Capitalism”, held in New School for Social Research in 2019.

To read the first part click here https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-que-e-o-neoliberalismo/

Originally published in the magazine Emancipation: a journal of critical social analysis, 2021.





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