Feminism, Capitalism, and Critique: Essays in Honor of Nancy Fraser
A book excerpt from Banu Bargu and Chiara Bottici
Since the financial crisis of 2008 and its devastating consequences around the world, interest in capitalism has come back with a vengeance. A palpable need has emerged for a fresh, systematic, and compelling critique of capitalism, one that can offer both explanations of the multiple and complex problems that we face in every sphere and solutions to address these challenges. Scholars from a multitude of disciplines have begun to tackle the reasons behind the crisis, specifically, and to analyze the workings of capitalism, more generally. Philosophers, political theorists, economists, and sociologists have turned their attention back to the economy, inquiring into its relationship with political power, social practices, cultural forms, experiences of domination, and different forms of knowledge. Neoliberalism is now being scrutinized as a historical phase, governmental rationality, ideological form, and a set of institutions and practices that constitute the dominant modality of capitalism in the present. From climate change to violent conflict, from an upsurge in authoritarian tendencies to stagnant economies, from the increasing gap between the rich and the poor to racism and xenophobia, the diverse array of problems that confront the world has prompted scholars to take up capitalism as their main object of analysis.[i]
What has followed is a veritable revival of research on different aspects of capitalism (see, for example, Piketty 2013; Stiglitz 2013). While the movement away from the predominantly culturalist perspectives toward the register of materiality has been welcomed by many, this turn to the material sphere has not exactly been a return to classical Marxism, whose orthodox frame for the study and critique of capitalism is now largely considered inadequate. Rather than a purely economic or economistic analysis, novel perspectives today stand out for their incorporation of feminist, anti-racist, and ecological perspectives. It has become crucial to understand how capitalism is linked not only with forms of economic exploitation but also with forms of gender domination (for example, see Arruzza 2013; Cudd and Holmstrom 2010; Federici 2012; Floyd 2009; Mojab 2015; Vogel 2014; Weeks 2011), racial and ethnic discrimination, as well as the increasingly irreversible destruction of the environment (for recent examples, see Harvey 2014; Moore 2015). Current scholarship is now much more attentive to the complex and multifaceted interaction between economic and non-economic spheres, resulting in rich analyses that tackle the nexus between various forms of economic inequality and social and political domination.[ii]
On the one hand, our goal is to speak to this revival by re-examining the relationship between three terms that we consider to be highly significant for grasping our present situation: capitalism, feminism, and critique. On the other hand, our goal is also to celebrate the work and life of a thinker, activist, scholar, and critic who has done the most to address this nexus: Nancy Fraser. Her innovative scholarship, original perspective, clarity of thought, erudition, and remarkable systematicity all distinguish her as one of the most prominent thinkers of our time. In honor of her seventieth birthday, this collection brings together scholars from different disciplines and theoretical approaches, both to address the current crisis of capitalism and to evaluate Fraser’s lifelong contributions to theorizing it. This collection echoes what we consider to be the spirit of Fraser’s work; namely, the weaving together of a strong commitment to feminism with an equally strong commitment to the critique of capitalism and an egalitarian politics. We could not think of a better way to honor her than by continuing her legacy of critique while also reflecting on her path-breaking contributions to the tradition of critical theory.
Feminism as critique
Inspired by Fraser’s insights and the interdisciplinary attitude of critical theory, this book creates a space of dialogue for scholars of diverse disciplines to explore the numerous ways in which a feminist perspective can be mobilized to understand capitalism, to subject it to a thorough critique that has as its aim the goal of advancing social justice, and to study what political implications may follow from this critique. Scholars from philosophy, political science, sociology, history, and gender studies, each representing a wide range of competencies and expertise, are assembled here to shed light on how feminism allows for an updated and extended critique of capitalism. Going beyond disciplinary distinctions, all the contributors to this project share a deep commitment to understand critically the connection between capitalism and a transformative politics attentive to sex and gender.
There are two principal reasons why exploring this connection is crucial today, both for academics and for a more general public debate. First, there is the role that capitalism plays in the context of the globalizing world. There is a destructive side to this role, one that the experience of “crisis” most painfully reveals, linking different countries and regions around the world by production chains and infrastructures as well as financial markets and speculative movements, wreaking havoc on the daily lives of ordinary citizens, with market fluctuations, plant relocations, cheapening labor prices, and worsening living and working conditions. The rapid destruction of the environment and climate change have brought about a further level of public awareness of the fragility of our situation. But there also exists a countervailing aspect to this situation, one that brings to light the deep, hitherto unprecedented interconnectedness of the world, tying the east to the west and the north to the south in mutually constitutive ways. Hence, any critique of capitalism today cannot afford to be Eurocentric but must instead address the planetary nature of the system. Similarly, the Westphalian framework, which allowed for the study of the operation of largely bounded national economies and their corresponding institutions, is no longer adequate to understand either the complex interrelations between these economies that are irreducible to histories of colonialism and imperialism alone or the generation and reproduction of injustices that spread across national borders. A global perspective is necessary in order to measure up to the challenge of capitalism itself. This collection recognizes the necessity of such a widened perspective in critical theory and is inspired by Nancy Fraser’s work toward theorizing the post-Westphalian framework of analysis and the role of feminism within it (Fraser 2005).
Second, the experiences of the twentieth century and the theoretical shortcomings of dominant forms of critique have by now revealed that a purely economic perspective is far from sufficient for meeting the challenges of conceptualizing capitalism as a system or for developing alternative economic forms of social organization commensurate to its complexity. Such a perspective limits our theoretical attention to the distribution of goods and welfare and constrains the practical energies of struggles against capitalism to a class-based politics (Fraser 2009). Nevertheless, the social problems and injustices experienced, even within Westphalian frameworks but also beyond them, are hardly limited to class inequality, nor can they simply be reduced to different cultural expressions of class inequality. This is where the perspective of feminism offers a crucial contribution, resisting the “androcentrism” both of capitalism and of its dominant critiques. As Fraser has argued, the construction of the “ideal-typical citizen as an ethnic-majority male worker—a breadwinner and a family man” (2009, p.100)—has been an important focus of feminist struggles in tackling the particular injustices faced by women. Feminist critiques have also been crucial for problematizing the sexism and gender discrimination that have permeated the class-based politics of the Left, where the dominant tendency was to relegate sex and gender issues to secondary or derivative status, when they were not altogether ignored.
For the feminist critique of capitalism advanced in this collection, the question, therefore, is not limited to mapping the specific ways in which women are exploited in capitalism—especially by way of their unpaid carework that is crucial for the reproduction of labor-power and through their participation in production processes where their labor is often differentially valued and whose differences are often exacerbated along a north-south divide. A whole generation of socialist feminist scholars has cogently argued these points, showing how capitalist exploitation is crucially dependent on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women or gendered bodies in general. The question of an anti-capitalist feminism today is to move further in the inquiry of why gender roles are pivotal in sustaining capitalism’s subordination of social reproduction to the production process and to examine how specific forms of sexual difference and gender domination are predicated on the social organization of capitalism and in turn perpetuate and reproduce its functioning, both on a global scale and, at the same time, most intimately, within the realm of social relationships. It is to confront the imbrication of gender with sexuality, race, ethnicity, religious, and class identities, and to note the complexity of its lived experience in domains largely invisible to purely economistic analyses and yet crucial for everyday life (Fraser 2009, p.103). The recognition of this entanglement between capitalism and patriarchy, between exploitation and non-economic forms of domination, then, is what this collection aims to register and unpack.
When we look at Nancy Fraser’s work longitudinally, we see a progressive widening of its horizons, particularly in these two directions. Setting out in the field of Western socialist feminism (Fraser 1989, 1990), Fraser’s work has fruitfully expanded toward a broader critique of capitalism, which has moved beyond a Westphalian framework, on the one hand, and complicated its focus on gender domination by an attentiveness to capitalism’s structural dependence on racism, imperialism, and an exploitative relationship with nature, on the other (Fraser 2014, 2016). This movement of her thought, guided by her unwavering commitment to social justice, has led her to be a vocal critic not only of state-organized capitalism and its class and gender injustices but also of second-wave feminism and its reconfiguration with the rise of neoliberalism (Fraser 2009, p.110).
We believe that this intellectual trajectory is not accidental. In contrast to a tendency among some social theorists to treat gender as an appendix or afterthought, Fraser has never entertained the possibility of formulating a general social theory “supplemented” by an analysis of gender. Rather, since the very beginning of her scholarship, a feminist perspective has figured prominently in her challenge to dominant frameworks. From her critique of Habermas’s theory of the public sphere (Fraser 1991) to her critique of the additive model (Fraser 2013), Fraser has always been at the forefront of showing how the critique of gender domination entails the critique of an entire social order, and vice versa. In this sense, the most important lesson of her intellectual trajectory consists precisely in showing that the oppression of women, and thus the cause of feminism that opposes it, is not simply a woman’s question, but rather an inevitable step in any form of social critique. “Feminism as critique” is thus not just the title of the collection edited by Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell to which Fraser has also contributed (Benhabib and Cornell 1987). Rather, it may aptly be used as the catchphrase for any form of critical theory that sees in the subjection of women more than just another problem to be fixed in capitalist societies, but instead sees it as one of the very cornerstones of such societies.
At the same time, Fraser’s rooting in a robust yet nuanced Marxist theoretical framework has also enabled her to keep distance from a feminism that has largely been limited to claims of inclusion and recognition, catapulting identity to a prominence that occludes any attention to class and the struggles over redistribution. This framework has also informed and guided her critique of feminist currents that have focused women’s energies on achieving upward mobility, greater economic security, and social status within the opportunities afforded by the spirit of neoliberalism and, in fact, in an uncomfortable complicity with it (Fraser 2009, pp. 107–13). Fraser has thus remarkably held onto both gender and class, without ever giving up on their mutual irreducibility or falling into the temptation of reductionism.
If capitalism essentially relies on both the separation between the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction and the subordination of the latter to the former, then feminism must confront the gender injustices that arise from the continuous and systemically necessary undervaluation of the work of women and gendered bodies in the sphere of reproduction. To this effect, Fraser insists on the need to supplement the analysis of production with a focus on social reproduction:
Social-reproductive activity is absolutely necessary to the existence of waged work, the accumulation of surplus value and the functioning of capitalism as such. Wage labor could not exists in the absence of housework, child-raising, schooling, affective care and a host of other activities which help to produce new generations of workers and replenish existing ones, as well as to maintain social bonds and shared understanding. Much like ‘original accumulation’, therefore, social reproduction is an indispensable background condition for the possibility of capitalist production (Fraser 2014, p. 62).
This is not only meant to register the fact that capitalism has historically been accompanied by a division between the spheres of production and reproduction. Much more insightfully, Fraser argues that such a distinction is a product of capitalism itself and, moreover, that it is structurally, rather than contingently, gendered. In this way, Fraser recovers a whole tradition of Marxist feminists who have been problematizing the traditional association of production with men and reproduction with women, thereby assuring domination of the latter by the former, given that, in a system where money is the primary medium of power, those who do unpaid work in the domestic sphere are inevitably subordinate to those who earn wages outside this sphere (Fraser 2014, p. 62). Yet, Fraser’s work has also been able to go beyond the simple binary division of men and women, thereby making space for the possibility of accounting for a multiplicity of gender identities. Although the latter may vary, according to specific contexts and historical phases, the central idea is that a capitalist mode of production cannot exist without a gendered organization of social reproduction.
But a feminism that is truly critical of capitalism must also confront a feminism that focuses solely on personalized subjection to male domination and fuels the desire for advancement within neoliberal capitalism. Fraser’s critique of microcredit is instructive in this regard. As is well-known, the discourse around microcredit was built on the narrative of “empowerment,” “self-help,” and “participation from below,” and it often juxtaposed these values against state-directed programs to reduce poverty, programs criticized for high levels of bureaucratic management. The personal narratives of success have supported microcredit practices as policies effective in addressing women’s welfare and emancipation. “What has been concealed, however,” Fraser writes, “in the feminist hoopla surrounding these projects, is a disturbing coincidence: microcredit has burgeoned just as states have abandoned macro-structural efforts to fight poverty, efforts that small-scale lending cannot possibly replace” (Fraser 2009, p.112).
Fraser’s worry that the important demands of second-wave feminism have been incorporated and reconfigured by neoliberalism in the service of justifying further marketization and the delimiting of the role of public power in addressing inequality thus complements her critique of capitalism. We therefore find the force of Fraser’s critique in her call for feminists to “think big,” (Fraser 2009, p.117), consistently pointing out the crucially gendered dimension of the division of labor, the organization of the economy, and the maintenance of social hierarchies, on the one hand, and insisting on the inadequacy of a solely gender-based perspective in reckoning with the transformation from state-organized capitalism to its current neoliberal configuration (Fraser 2013).
We also note that a critical feminist perspective focusing on addressing the role of gender as an integral ingredient of a capitalist social order would be remiss if it focused only on sex and gender, without noting how this order is also deeply imbricated with a system of differences and dependencies among which race occupies a prominent place. Here, Fraser’s most recent interventions in rethinking capitalism are particularly important, as they attend specifically to these imbrications. Moving toward theorizing race as a form of continued expropriation, Fraser’s current work addresses how capitalism creates political subjectivities that are racialized by means of enslavement, dispossession, and myriad forms of coercion, and further, how these subjectivities are incorporated in processes of labor exploitation in ways that are both a precondition and, simultaneously, a consequence of capitalism as a social system (Fraser 2016). Critical theory has not done enough to address the manifestations of racialization, as well as the perpetuation of inequality, domination, and discrimination related to race, not only historically but also in the present.
By complementing a critique of the exploitation of free wage-labor with a critique of the expropriation of dependent labor and material resources, Fraser has been able to show how racism and the depletion of natural resources are structurally necessary to capitalism in all its different phases (Fraser 2016). As an economic system based on limitless expansion and extraction of surplus value, capitalism gives to the owners of capital a structural interest in acquiring labor and means of production below cost and even gratis (Fraser 2016, p. 167). From the originary moment of “primitive” accumulation to the recurrent problem of crises generated by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, capitalism needs to supplant the exploitation of free labor with the expropriation of unfree labor, a confiscatory move that has all too often converged with the “color line” of race. As Fraser put it,
The link is clear in practices widely associated with capitalism’s early history but still ongoing, such as territorial conquest, land annexation, enslavement, coerced labor, child labor, child abduction, and rape. But expropriation also assumes more “modern” forms — such as prison labor, transnational sex trafficking, corporate land grabs, and foreclosures on predatory debt, which are also linked with radical oppression — and […] with contemporary imperialism. Finally expropriation plays a role in the construction of distinctive, explicitly racialized forms of exploitation–as, for example, when a prior history of enslavement casts its shadow on the wage contract, segmenting labor markets and levying a confiscatory premium on exploited proletarians who carry the mark of ‘race’ long after their ‘emancipation.’ In that last case, expropriation combines with exploitation, whereas in the others, it appears to stand alone. But in all the cases, it correlates with racial oppression — and for reasons that are non-accidental (Fraser 2016, p. 167).
We find this new direction in Fraser’s research trajectory extremely promising, not only due to its turn to attend to the specific forms of racial oppression brought forth by capitalism but also because it can put forth novel ways of conceiving the relation between racial subjection and gender subjection as forms of dependent subjectivities produced in and through processes of domination, exploitation, and expropriation. We think that it allows her work to speak more forcefully and broadly to third world, black, and anarcho-feminisms that have been crucial for the problematization of race in recent feminist discussions. This also constitutes a venue in which Fraser’s critique of second-wave feminism’s integration with neoliberalism merges with the critiques of second-wave feminism advanced by black and brown feminisms for being symptomatic of a kind of “white privilege.” We would like to point out how these feminisms (south/black/anarchist, on the one hand, and Marxist/socialist, on the other) have more in common than is often acknowledged in advancing a systematic critique of capitalism and how Fraser’s recent work could point to such a convergence.
Banu Bargu is Associate Professor of Politics at the New School for Social Research, USA. She is the author of Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (2014), which received APSA’s First Book Prize given by the Foundations of Political Theory section and was named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2015 by Choice.
Chiara Bottici is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, USA. She is the author of Imaginal Politics: Images beyond Imagination and The Imaginary (2014), A Philosophy of Political Myth (2007), and Uomini e stati. Percorsi di un’analogia (2004), which was published in English as Men and States (2009).
[i] Nancy Fraser’s discussion of these themes in her instantly classical “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode” (2014) speaks volumes about both about the need for systematic analyses and her crucial role in advancing the critique of capitalism in the critical theory tradition.
[ii] Critical theory, too, has had its share of this revival. Not only is there a resurgence of interest in thinkers such as Karl Polanyi and Karl Marx but there is an increasing attempt to develop new concepts and categories adequate for the analysis of crisis and the possibilities of practical transformation. The recent edited collection on Marx’s work, which gathers several intellectuals gravitating around the tradition of the Frankfurt School, is a case in point (Jaeggi & Loick 2014). But it is also significant that prominent figures of such a tradition who have been working on alternative forms of critique, such as the Hegelian and the Kantian, are now devoting increasing attention to Marx and the critique of capitalism more generally (see, for instance, Forst 2014 and Honneth 2017).