Daniel Denvir: Welcome to The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin Magazine. My name is Daniel Denvir and I’m broadcasting from Providence, Rhode Island.
This, dear listeners, is a serious theory show. And I’m very pleased that my guest today is legendary critical theorist Nancy Fraser. Fraser is well-known for her feminist and Marxist theories of justice and social reproduction. Social reproduction is everything that takes place in homes, neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and more, that capitalism requires to ensure that laborers can wake up in the morning and walk into work to be exploited on the job. Her latest book, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, is a dialogue with Rahel Jaeggi that advances a total critique of capitalism as a comprehensive order, and extends her analysis of social reproduction to capitalism’s other critical underpinnings.
Fraser argues that a total analysis of capitalism requires taking Marxism beyond a narrowly economistic view. Indeed, the economistic insistence on sharp divisions, such as those drawn between the economic and political and environmental, between the workplace and the home, or between liberal free labor regimes in wealthy countries and raw expropriation on the neocolonial periphery, are themselves key to the legitimation and reproduction of the capitalist order.
Throughout its history, capitalism has been defined not just by labor exploitation, but also by the disavowal of its own basic conditions of possibility, the things that the daily business of labor exploitation and surplus value appropriation require––from politics, care work, warmaking, mining, patriarchy, racism and more. The fact that these other forms of domination are simultaneously critical to capitalism, but also externalized as incidental under capitalism, leads capitalism to threaten its own viability. And that means that those seemingly non-economic spheres become points of contradiction and, potentially, crisis. In other words, the very drive to accumulate capital, identified by Marx, constantly threatens these obscured, but absolutely necessary, inputs, whether they be oil or childbearing, by failing to pay their full cost or even by denying that the debts should be billed to capitalists in the first place.
We see the results today with two earner households struggling to tend to their children, a long multifaceted war that has discredited the postwar geopolitical order, a legitimacy crisis for a system of mass incarceration that functions to discipline and control the surplus from the domestic labor market’s racialized lowest rungs, expensive real estate threatened by rising seas, and immigration flows produced by a system that simultaneously requires Third World workers to remain poor in the periphery, while also requiring them to perform low wage labor in the core.
The class struggle, if we look carefully, is everywhere. And so, our ambition can’t be a simple return to the New Deal era’s “family wage,” secured by a well-compensated working man, because that, in turn, relied upon a subservient housewife at home. Unsustainable natural resource exploitation and rampantly extractive imperialism across the Third World, racism, sexism, and an imperialist global geopolity are not incidental to capitalism, but are rather tethered systematically to its very center. Capitalists will find provisional solutions for mounting objective crises, crises that are increasingly becoming subjective ones as well, as people struggle, tilting toward both the anti-system left and right to make sense of a system that no longer does. The Clintonian center will attempt to revivify its corpse, having no other options at its disposal save for a politics that once worked, but no longer do. Business will promote techno fever dreams of human liberation from labor in nature as a cover for the most brutal forms of domination and expropriation. The robots might be coming for your jobs, but right now, they are here, and they are making your jobs a nightmare.
Capitalism can’t liberate itself from its own conditions of possibility, but it can work out new, immiserating, and destructive fixes. It’s up to socialists to provide an alternative. Here’s Nancy Fraser, a professor of philosophy and politics at the New School for Social Research and, most recently, the author of Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, co-authored with Rahel Jaeggi.
DD: Nancy Fraser, welcome to The Dig.
Nancy Fraser: Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here.
DD: Your Marxism is a refreshingly comprehensive one. You argue, if I can take a stab at summarizing your argument, that the exploitation of labor in the realm of production, which is what’s most familiar to many Marxists, critically depends upon three key things that are shunted off into the background. First, social reproduction, which most notably, but by no means exclusively, includes home lives, where humans eat, sleep, socialize, where children are reared. Second, politics, which includes everything from the market-creating and defending activities of government, to the carceral state. And then, non-human nature, which is both this critical source of raw materials for capitalists, but also a dumpster for their waste. And some orthodox variants of Marxism don’t pay much attention to these things, in part, it seems to me, ironically, because capitalism mystifies and denies the fact that it depends upon these spheres. Explain this big picture of capitalism you are arguing for, something that is, in your analysis, far more than a merely economic system.
NF: You’re right. There is a tendency to think of capitalism as an economic system, and then we think that if we’re engaged, say, on the left, in trying to criticize capitalism, we’re criticizing how production is organized, how wealth is distributed, how class power in the workplace is wielded, and so on. Now, all of those things are extremely important, but they’re not the whole story, because the official economy within a capitalist society depends on a background of social relations, social practices, institutions, that are regarded as non-economic. In fact, I would say that one thing that is really definitive of capitalist societies, which distinguishes those societies from others, is precisely the centrality of this distinction between what is truly economic and what is non-economic. That’s not a distinction that’s somehow given by nature; it is a socially constructed distinction, and one that is institutionalized with real material and political force in capitalist societies. So all the work, as you mentioned, of birthing and raising children, of schooling them, of feeding them, of cleaning them, of socializing them, all the work of caring for other family members, whether we’re talking about healthy and able working adults or aging or invalid parents and others––all of that is considered non-economic and outside of the capitalist economy unless we get to a point, which we’ve arrived at, at least to some degree, today, where that work is commodified and becomes wage work. But in and of itself, it’s always taken a back seat and, as you say, shoved into the background. And when we think we’re talking about and criticizing capitalism, we’re ignoring all that. We’re also ignoring all of these questions about how public power, the power of states, of global financial and political institutions, of police, how all of that power is organized and is also a necessary precondition for the functioning of a capitalist economy, in the narrow sense. And the third thing you mentioned, non-human nature, is seen, from the capitalist economic point of view, as a repository of raw material stuff that we can just take, funnel into production, use up, exhaust, not worry about replenishing, as if it’s just an infinitely available gift. And then, as you say, to be used also as a dumpster, as just a place to dump waste, of which we generate an enormous amount. So, if you take what I call an “expanded view” of what capitalism is, you come to the point where you say: we can’t understand how even the narrow economy functions if we don’t look at the ways in which it relies on and depends upon inputs from the system of care or social reproduction, from the system of nature, from the various political systems. The economy doesn’t work without those things. And my proposal is that instead of interpreting capitalism as an economic system, we should see it as the name for something much bigger. I call it an “institutionalized social order,” and I think you could get a sense of what I mean by that if you just contrast it to feudalism. Capitalism is something as big as and on a par with feudalism. And in both cases, the question is: how are things that we might think of as economic functions organized in relation to other functions, equally necessary to society and to the economic––that are split off, hived off, called something else, located in different institutions, assigned to different people, compensated differently if at all, and in a way that is shot through and through with asymmetrical power relations––with relations of domination? Just to finish this maybe overly long answer, I would say that one advantage of taking this expanded view of capitalism is that you get to see how entrenched relations of domination other than the ones that Marxists have traditionally focused on, namely class (understood in an economistic way), are also inseparable from, and structurally grounded in, capitalist societies. And that includes relations of gender dominance and subordination; that obviously has everything to do with the division between economic production, on the one side, and social reproduction, on the other. We could say a little bit more about how race and imperial domination fit into this picture, but that too is equally structural. And obviously, ecological depredation and destruction is built into this picture. So, we’ve got a broader array of axes of domination and I could go on and say, also, a broader array of flashpoints of trouble and nodes of crisis. There’s much more going on in capitalist society than the traditional economistic picture suggests.
DD: There’s a lot there, obviously, and a lot in your book. I want to start with social reproduction, which has been the focus of the work for a lot of your career. And I want you to explain a little bit more about what that is, and how it differs from forms of patriarchy that have existed outside of capitalism. And then, concretely, I’d like you to explain what the crisis, or maybe better put, crises, of social reproduction look like in the United States today. Because one core contradiction, or crisis tendency, in capitalism, that you touched on briefly in your first comment there, is that the drive to accumulate more capital means that all of these prerequisites that capitalism depends upon but denies are always threatened with commodification and destruction. So, I’d like you to lay out these current crises in social reproduction, and why it is that capitalism is driven to undermine its very conditions of existence.
NF: Sure, absolutely. It’s a complicated question, but I think an extremely important one that provides us, if we can get a proper handle on it, with a lot of insight into what’s going on today politically in the United States. But let me start with the general issue of, what is social reproduction? At one level, social reproduction just means all of the activities and energies and social relations that go into producing, socializing, and reproducing human beings and social bonds––everything that connects people to one another in social life. And social reproduction, in this very general sense, exists in every society, in every form, in free capitalist societies and socialist societies and so on. Now, what is specific though is how social reproduction is organized in capitalist societies. And as I said just before, the most important starting point here is this idea that we separate it from what we call “economic production.” In one case people “go out to work,” to an office, to a factory, to a mine, to a field. In another case, they stay at home. So we already have this huge division between the household and the workplace, between the family and the factory, and this division correlates, historically, with gender, with the sphere of women and the sphere of men. It’s this split between production and reproduction that is distinctive, or it’s one of the splits that’s distinctive, about capitalist society. In previous societies, women’s work was often distinguished from men’s work. They didn’t do exactly the same things, but they did it, more or less, in the same space of the extended household or the village or community. And there was no sense that women’s work was somehow occluded, made invisible, seen as not contributing. But with the emergence of capitalism, and especially these various Victorian ideologies and middle-class ideals of female domesticity, then you got the idea that that women weren’t really even working at all. They were just adorning or diffusing fine moral sentiments throughout society. This is all a huge mystification. Some Marxist feminists, just to clarify, have thought of social reproductive labor exclusively as housework. I think that’s too narrow. It’s not just about cleaning and cooking and washing within the confines of a private family home. Social reproduction should also be thought of as including schools and whatever public institutions that create social bonds––
DD: Playgrounds, community centers, block parties––
NF: Playgrounds, community centers; hospitals and medical clinics are also sites of social reproduction. In any case, it’s a vast expanse of social activity. But for the most part, and this is another distinctive feature of capitalism, unless it’s brought inside the economy and treated as a way to make a profit, it’s not counted as having any value. And most of social reproduction––all of these things I’ve talked about––is still outside the formal economy. It’s seen as not having a value. So that’s the other thing about what capitalism values. Since the whole raison d’être of the system is precisely to accumulate profits and thereby to expand capital, that’s the sole measure of value. And this brings me to the point you were just asking about having to do with crisis tendencies. You can see that there’s a built-in, hardwired imperative to maximize your profit and increase your capital, if you have any. And that means trying to find, and touch on, inputs that you can use in the process of capital accumulation for which you don’t pay at all or you pay at under the cost of their replacement. Capital is structurally primed to try to avoid paying the replacement costs of the inputs that it utilizes in the process of production, including immaterial production. So, that means not paying the full ecological replacement costs of raw materials or of the damage that’s done through waste dumping, including carbon emissions. It also means not paying the full replacement costs of the work of social reproduction. So, we know that housework has overwhelmingly been unpaid or very poorly paid and underpaid; paid less than the cost of reproducing the woman who performs it. That difference between what capital gets out of that work, even indirectly, and what is paid for it, is a nice little windfall, a freebie, that makes capitalist production more profitable. I’m just trying to describe a logic that is built into a system that works this way, where you’re always trying to pay as little as possible. So over time, what can happen, is that there is a systemwide failure to invest in social reproduction. Capital doesn’t want to pay. It doesn’t want to pay its workers enough to allow them to pay a decent wage for personal housework, for example, or childcare. Corporations don’t want to pay the taxes, generous enough taxes, to fund generous high-quality public services, such as a childcare or education and so on. So there’s a constant chiseling away at this. And it can go so far, under certain conditions, that you actually endanger society’s capacity to reproduce itself in this human social sense. This is a case of just eating into the bone of something. And we know from, let’s say, Engels’ great work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, how this looked in the 19th century in an early phase of capitalism, where the new industries were just basically dragooning women and children into factories and mines along with men. In fact, they loved child labor and women’s labor because they thought they could pay less and they thought that these would be docile workers who wouldn’t make trouble. In any case, you got in this situation a real crisis of social reproduction, where the working class was really not able to reproduce itself, to turn out laborers with the health and the skills and those human capacities that were needed. And it provoked an enormous amount of political conflict and struggle and organizing, aimed first at passing protective legislation and other laws limiting hours, and minimum wage laws, and health and safety laws, and so on and so forth. All of that was an attempt to try to draw some boundaries and bolster the processes of social reproduction, which capital, left to itself, was depleting and destroying. That 19th century––
DD: And this is a core crisis tendency that you identify as “boundary struggles.”
NF: Yes. I coined this phrase “boundary struggles” to try to give a name to a kind of struggle that is built into capitalist society precisely around these institutionalized divisions; division between production and reproduction, between the economy and the political system, between non-human nature and human society, which is supposed to not be natural. The point is, these are divisions that are definitive and constitutive of capitalist society. They are structural. And they are also points, locations in society, where conflict congregates. Where should we draw the line between production and reproduction? These struggles, that I just mentioned, over protective legislation in the 19th and 20th century, were struggles over just that question. And they were at the same time struggles over, what’s the boundary between the state and the market? Should the state step in and say, “No, you have to have minimum wage. You have to have a health and safety regime. You have to have accident insurance. You have to limit hours and so on so forth.” These are very familiar kinds of conflicts, but I think it clarifies to think of them as boundary struggles, struggles over where to draw the line between reproduction and production, polity and economy, nature and society. I think that the usual Marxian story about class struggle, while very powerful and absolutely pertinent to our time as well, doesn’t fully account for struggles outside the workplace proper, which could also be thought of class struggles if we had a wider sense of what we meant by class, but that are, in any case, boundary struggles. But if we go back to the question of social reproduction today, what’s very important is that we’ve transitioned, within the last, say, 50 years, to a new form of capitalism. Well, I guess if it’s 50 years it’s maybe not so new anymore, but it’s been called neoliberalism. I prefer to call it financialized capitalism. Whatever we call it, it’s very different from the previous regime of capitalism which flourished, at least in the U.S., from the New Deal, and elsewhere, at least in the aftermath of the Second World War. I call that state-managed capitalism. You could call it social-democratic capitalism. Some people used to call it monopoly capitalism, many names, but the key idea of that New Deal or state-managed capitalism was that the state weighed in, in support of social reproduction. It said: okay, we’re not going to let that pursuit of profit run entirely roughshod over people’s ability to have a life and even to generate new workers that capital wants down the line. We’re going to throw some ballast on the scale, some weight on the scale. We’re going to tax capital. We’re going to pay for schooling. And we’re going to insist that wage levels be at a certain level to allow for a home life and so on. I want to be clear that I am the last person to say that this New Deal, or state-managed regime was a golden age of any kind. It was premised on a lot of built-in domination. It was premised on women’s subordination, through the idea of the family wage, the idea that a working man should be paid a salary sufficient to support his non-employed wife and children, so that a family should need only one salary, one worker. That, at one level, seems like a luxury to us today. But at another level, it was premised on a male-dominated household model in which women were dependent on men. It was also premised on––now we do get to the more traditional sense of imperialism––the ability of the wealthy states of the capitalist core to siphon value from what was then called the Third World, what we today called the Global South.
DD: I want to ask you about the interstate system and imperialism because that’s one of a few different divisions that, if I read you right, are subsets of, though by no means secondary to, the three key divisions that you identify between production and reproduction, economy and polity, and human and non-human nature. And one of these key divisions, that is a subset, but not secondary, is that between domestic and international, and core and periphery. And those two divisions are also key because they’re reproduced inside the United States and other Global North nation states by way of racism and also the racialized legal caste system, more segmented labor market, of illegalized immigrant labor. You identify race and racism and, I think, also an unequal predatory interstate system as core features of capitalism. How do they then relate to the three major distinctions you articulate?
NF: I said earlier that gender dominance and subordination is hardwired into capitalism as we’ve known it. And I would say the same is true for racial ethnic dominance and subordination. Racial oppression is not contingently or accidentally related to capitalism, but is structurally inscribed in it. And the reason, as I understand it, has to do with the logic I was describing a minute ago, and that is that capital has a stake, always, in expropriating labor forces and raw materials and other assets, for which it doesn’t fully pay. So you have, on the one hand––capitalism developed in a dualized way, historically. On the one hand, you have the iconic working men whom we think of, who go to the factory and get a wage equal to the costs of their social reproduction and so on. On the other hand, you have a much larger population, a much larger story of people who are not in wage labor, in anything remotely like that, but whose assets are simply being seized in one way or another by capital, by imperial and colonial states, or even by their own states in our time.
DD: And this is accumulation by dispossession, which is the continuous, persistent version of primitive accumulation, which is more of the historically specific––
DD: Version of it.
NF: Exactly. This phrase “accumulation by dispossession” is David Harvey’s phrase and it’s a good one. I’ve preferred, though, to speak about expropriation versus exploitation. Let me quote a phrase that I love from Jason Moore, the eco-Marxist critic. He writes, “Behind Manchester stands Mississippi.” So that’s a beautiful phrase. It’s so succinct. What it means is that you don’t have the ability to profitably exploit factory labor in the great textile mills of Manchester without the raw material of cotton produced by slaves in Mississippi. That cheapens the crucial input, the raw material, for the textile production. It also helps to have slave-produced sugar, and tobacco, and rum, and other commodities that allow you to pay lower wages because you have cheap consumer goods, so to speak. So the point is, exploitation and expropriation have always been intertwined in the history of capitalism. They still are today. But roughly, and overall, that distinction has corresponded to what Du Bois famously called “the color line.” It has been overwhelmingly people of color who found themselves on the expropriation side of the boundary and people who were called whites, or Europeans, or metropolitans, who found themselves on the exploitation side. Exploitation was no picnic, but it’s still a more privileged position than that of expropriation. And I think that division is the fundamental structural basis of racial oppression in capitalist society. It’s not just an economic distinction; it’s not that one gets paid and the other, not. It’s also that one is free and the other is dependent or enslaved, subjugated, whether as a colonial subject or a piece of chattel property. Marx insists that wage labor––the workers are free to sign a labor contract. They have a certain level of rights, even if they don’t have the material means to exercise these in a fully free way. The expropriated subjects––and this is the very meaning of expropriation––they don’t have rights. They don’t have protections. Their persons, property, lands, animals, children, can simply be seized. And there’s nobody, no power, they can call upon to protect them, to draw the line. So to be expropriatable means to be inherently subject to violation. And that’s another important meaning of racialization.
DD: Your analysis on this reminded me of an insight from Barbara Fields, which is how racism is a result of the contradictions between, I guess what you would describe as, the political and economic spheres of liberal capitalism. You have liberal democracy, proclaiming liberty and some sort of equality for all, but you have this economy that’s obviously brutally unequal, most extremely so with the expropriated labor of African slaves. And then so racism is a sort of provisional solution to this contradiction.
NF: There is a contradiction, I would say, in that unlike feudalism and of other forms of ancient slave societies, capitalism really depends on the idea that the official working class, those who are recognized as workers, are free individuals. They, in time, acquire citizenship rights. They get the vote. I mean, they have to struggle for it, but they get the vote. And they get civil rights and other rights. On the other hand, capitalism doesn’t work without this substrate and without this background, this hidden abode. It’s the sort of analogue, in a way, of the housewife. In a sense, you could say her labor is, if not expropriated, at least appropriated, by capital. And on the other hand, you have these vast swaths of humanity throughout the world––as you say, overseas––in colonies and post-colonies, but also the so-called colony within the core, the periphery within the core. You know, there used to be a whole theory about the black colony within the U.S. in African-American liberation thought. So I would say that the freedom of the worker––which is, of course, the freedom to be exploited––let’s not overstate it, but the freedom of the worker depends upon the subjection of the “non-worker,” the racialized other. Whatever benefits the exploited have are somehow off the backs of the expropriated. And of course, the real benefits don’t go to the exploited at all, but to capital. So, I think that race is central. And whenever capitalism takes a form in which it requires––I would say it always requires both expropriation and exploitation––but whenever it takes the form of assigning those two “functions” to two different populations, the result is racialization.
DD: A particularly interesting history you sketch out, that you touched on a few minutes ago, is how different forms of expropriation, by way of things like colonial plunder and slavery, also relate to specific forms of environmental dispossession. You describe it, I think, as a relationship between free labor and expropriation on the one hand, and fossil fuel energy versus human energy on the other. And I think this brings together two important aspects of your theory. Can you explain that dynamic, and how that plays out, not just between nation states, but within them as well? And that actually might get to your expropriation point that you were just touching on.
NF: That’s a very important question. The idea, if we just start by thinking for a moment about energy and how capitalist production––all production––relies on energy, then…I’m influenced by a really interesting essay that I read by J.R. McNeill, who distinguished between somatic and extrasomatic energy regimes. A somatic regime depends upon human and animal bodies to convert, let’s say, solar energy, chemical energy, into mechanical energy and then to use that to labor. So it’s human muscle, and oxen, and horses, and all of that. And for millennia, including in the early stages of capitalism, that’s what powered production. Then you get this very important moment with the introduction, what’s really the invention by Watt, of the steam engine and the idea that you can actually convert chemical to mechanical energy outside of living bodies. You can do it in a machine, in an engine. And this is a total game-changer because it means that you can––well, the appearance is that you liberate yourself from the need for living bodies and from the need for more and more land to feed the living bodies. You can liberate yourself from the need for biomass. Whereas before, if you wanted to scale up production, you had to conquer more bodies, you had to conquer more lands to feed them. Now, apparently, all you need to do is get a little bit of coal and a smaller number of workers, put them inside a factory, and crank up the steam engine. Well, what is clear to me is that that’s only the front story, the tip of the iceberg. You could say that the harshest and most obvious fallout from a couple of centuries of really rampant carbon emissions falls most obviously and harshly on people in the Global South. And, one should add, communities of color within the Global North, who are subject to environmental racism, toxic dumping, and so on and so forth. So this is all entwined, this ecological side of the story and the part of it that has to do with expropriation and imperialism, which again has to do, as you rightly pointed out, with the way that capitalism divides economy from polity. It sets up a world economic system and then superimposes on that a multi-state political system of vastly unequal states, it must be added.
DD: The front story of the future, I think, is Elon Musk, it’s self-driving cars, it’s high-frequency trading, it’s seamless and near-total automation, it’s technological fixes to the ecological crisis. What do you make of that front story? And what’s the backstory that it’s dependent on but disavowing?
NF: Yeah, that’s the sort of hyper fantasy of freedom from materiality. This is the idea that we somehow catapult ourselves out of embodiment, out of our planetary material existence, and somehow give birth to ourselves as pure mind or symbolic beings or whatever, and get everything that we need or want in that way. But these fantasies of liberation from nature and from labor have always meant one thing. They have always meant offloading the burdens onto other bodies and other natures far away, from which we try to, let’s say, cordon ourselves off in our gated worlds and so on. It makes no sense. It’s only possible, like Manchester, because there’s Mississippi somewhere else. And that means other people, whose conditions of life are being devastated.
DD: Another question about this division between politics and economics, which I think is also, as an aside, something that helps me understand how libertarians get away with cleansing the market of power relations of domination. But it’s a division, like the others you outline obviously, that mystifies these deep and mutually dependent relationships, and today that seems really clear on a lot of different fronts. You have the Tea Party and then Trump and the way that freedom of movement for capital has been met with this increasing nationalism, hardening of borders, xenophobia. Obviously, no crisis predictably or automatically determines any particular political outcome. But, on a theoretical level, I’d like you to explain the difference between objective and subjective crises. And, more concretely, to explain the current dynamic between economic and political crises that we’re witnessing with what seems to be a legitimation crisis for the system.
NF: Yeah, that’s a very important point. We’ve been talking so far without really making a distinction between an objective aspect of a crisis and a lived, or social, or subjective, aspect of a crisis. But when we were talking about this dynamic, whereby capital is always trying to confiscate as much as it can in the way of free labor, free nature, free political benefits, without paying their costs, that’s an objective system dynamic, and one that, I was trying to suggest, is––without some kind of intervention, left to its own devices––one that will necessarily end up undermining, destabilizing, exhausting, the very background conditions that the system needs. That would be an objective story about a crisis tendency. It’s kind of parallel to what Marx meant by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. That’s an objective dynamic. On the other hand, when we talked about class struggles and boundary struggles and all of that, we’re talking about how people react to the playing out of the objective tendencies, how they respond. Do they register that there’s something really negative going on or not? Do they actually think it’s a crisis or not? And what it means to think it’s a crisis is to think, “This is not accidental that these bad things are going on, but there’s something about the system itself that is generating them.” And that this system could be changed. And that we stand at a crossroads and might be willing to undertake the responsibility to organize collectively to change them. That’s all part of what it means to react subjectively and to assume the burden of calling something a crisis and responding to it in that way. And I would say that today, that the present form of capitalism––you can call it neoliberal globalizing financialized capitalism––has brought us, in a very acute way, to an objective crisis. We have all kinds of indicators of that, even including the decline of life expectancy for important segments of the population in the United States. So, there’s definitely an objective crisis going on. And it is more and more being registered by people as such. However, that’s when the fun begins, if you like. Because everything depends on how people who register a crisis interpret it, where they think its true sources are, who’s the culprit, what’s to blame, what needs to be changed, etc. And at any moment, historically, there is more than one such story around. In fact, a crisis, you mentioned a legitimation crisis, what that means is that the established narratives through which people interpreted what was going on in, let’s say, a “normal” non-crisis period, have lost their credibility. So you could say there’s a breakdown of hegemony, of the dominant narratives and meanings and schemas that people used to interpret. And when that happens, you get a rush of alternative schemas, narratives, stories, that flood into the public sphere and you get, what can be, a wild competition among them to establish a counter hegemony, another dominant narrative. I think that’s exactly what’s going on today…the flood of new people into Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, the success of Podemos in Spain, and on, and on, and on. These are counter attempts to get in there with an alternative narrative.
DD: And we have Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon’s challenge.
DD: There’s definitely a countervailing energy that began––we could look at antecedents going back to the anti-WTO protest era to Occupy and Black Lives Matter––but then through Bernie Sanders and really the way Bernie Sanders, that energy, reacts to Trump’s election and the way Trump’s election really more totally delegitimates a Clintonian version of what you call progressive neoliberalism.
NF: Yeah, I think to understand this we do really have to talk about what I call progressive neoliberalism. And I mean the failure, which is so apparent today. So there’s a veneer of progressive and seemingly egalitarian emancipatory aspirations that got tied up––and I do think Bill Clinton is the key architect of all this with the so-called New Democrats––it got all tied up with a political economy that created NAFTA, the WTO, repealed Glass-Steagall, all the ways in which it basically invited industry to decamp and finance, to metastasize. So obviously that political economy, which we’ve had 30 some years of, has really clobbered the U.S. working class. And when I say working class, I mean that in the broadest sense. I don’t just mean construction workers, factory workers, miners and drillers. I mean the whole working class, which includes, obviously, people of color and women and immigrants. So the working class and many parts of what people who would call themselves middle class have been clobbered by this political economy. An important segment of them––this was Trump’s genius, but he didn’t invent it––an important segment of them associate that political economy with feminism, multiculturalism, coddling Blacks and immigrants. And it’s not crazy because those social movements––or again, as I say, the mainstream conventional segments––were allied with those governments and with those corporate forces.
DD: Your argument on this point, near the end of the book, is really interesting. You write that this prior hegemonic political order was this divide between progressive and reactionary neoliberalism. That dynamic, as we’ve discussed, exploded in part due to these left and right populist challenges from Sanders and Trump. But since taking office, obviously, Trump has, in so many ways, doubled down on neoliberalism. His biggest legislative accomplishment to date is just the most standard Reaganite Republican tax cut imaginable. And your argument is that as a result of that, maybe, he has doubled down on his reactionary social politics and xenophobia. And I think that’s a really compelling argument, especially seeing his behavior in the lead-up to the midterm. But the analysis of yours I find even more interesting, and that I hadn’t quite thought of as such before is that, ironically, the liberal/neoliberal resistance figures and Trump are, in some ways, involved in the same quixotic effort, which is to reinstate this already destroyed hegemonic political order that just divides, which makes either progressive or reactionary neoliberalism the only choices.
NF: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I do think prior to the Sanders-Trump moment we had a situation in which we had two choices: a reactionary neoliberalism or a progressive neoliberalism. Granted, you could choose between ethnonationalism and multiculturalism, but you were going to be stuck, either way, with financialization and deindustrialization. So that was the limited choice. And then we had this astonishing moment when these two figures––and I don’t mean to suggest that there wasn’t plenty going on before that led up to this and enabled it, and you rightly mentioned Occupy and Black Lives Matter and so on. Fair enough, but nevertheless there’s this moment where, suddenly, the political universe widens and there are some other options. And yes, I did call them a progressive populism on the Sanders side versus a reactionary populism on the Trump side. Now, Trump in power is another story, the old bait-and-switch. The economic side of the populism goes, as you say, and he doubles down. So I said what he really gives us is hyper-reactionary neoliberalism. And you’re right, the so-called resistance, as you pointed out already––I mean there is a big battle going on between a Clintonite wing and what you could call a Sanders wing for what this resistance is going to look like. And I would say that the Clintonite wing, its aim, I think, is to restore the status quo ante, meaning to reinstate progressive neoliberalism. That, to me, is such a devastatingly bad idea. All that does is recreate the conditions that created Trump and prepares the way for future Trumps, even more horrible Trumps. And believe me, there can be more horrible Trumps than this one.
DD: It’s a devastatingly bad idea, but it’s also a very predictable one, because in a legitimation crisis it’s no surprise that the actors in the discredited order have no tools but the ones that used to work to resort to.
NF: You know, there’s a tendency in situations like this for people to feel they need to close ranks and fight the fascist menace. Well, we should first of all talk about whether fascism is even the right word. I doubt that it is. But in any case, we’re not at a point where closing ranks is the only sane thing to do. I mean moments do come up in history where you have to do that. This is not one, or at least not yet. And I think it is a moment for a left and progressive populism or democratic socialism––there are many terms one could use here––to really jump into the breach in a big way and try not to close ranks, but to promote divisions, to try to split off the mass of people who identify with feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, multiculturalism. plit them off from their neoliberal allies, from the Hillary Clintons and others, who have ventriloquized their demands and claims in a form that is perfectly consistent with neoliberal financialization. Let’s try to create a split. Let’s be done with “lean in” feminism, with corporate feminism. I’m part of an initiative of feminists and socialist feminists who have tried to start something we call “the feminism for the 99 percent.” And I’d like to see an environmentalism for the 99 percent, and an anti-racism for the 99 percent, and on, and on. The point is: we should split the progressive ranks and, at the same time, try to split Trump’s ranks. Because I am convinced that a lot of the working-class people who voted for him, I mean white working-class people in the upper Midwest and elsewhere, are not forever wedded to this xenophobic, anti-immigrant, ethno-national, and racist perspective. The proof is that we know that 8.5 million of them voted Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016. That shows, right off the bat, that they’re not card-carrying racists. They voted Sanders, many of them, in the Democratic primary. They’re opportunistic. They’re voting for whoever talks a good line on the economy, on jobs, on wages, and on public services. And Trump did talk a better line on some of those things than Hillary Clinton did, but we can talk an even better line on those things.
DD: And one that’s not racist.
NF: And we can link it to the progressive views about gender, race, immigration and so on.
DD: I want to ask you about how alienation fits into all of this, because it seems like it’s a key to getting beyond narrowly economistic analysis and lead us to an analysis that can help us understand things like the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory or the really lethal disaffection amongst white workers, in terms of the deaths of despair from suicide and opioids, who, in many cases, are still much better off than their counterparts of color. You write that, “Markets in labor power change the internal character of what is traded on them and the surrounding form of life in which they are located.” What is alienation? Does it take place in multiple ways and on multiple levels, say at both the point of production and also in a larger systemic manner? And what is it that we’re alienated from or made alien to?
NF: Right. Look, this is a complicated philosophical question as well as a political and interpretive question. There’s a long tradition, that goes back to Marx’s very early writings, to write about alienated labor, meaning exploited wage labor within capitalism where the worker is alienated from her or his own self, his own laboring activity, which he or she doesn’t control, is controlled by the capitalists, alienated from the product of the labor, alienated from fellow human beings, and from what Marx famously called the worker’s “species-being,” our humanity as such. By which I think he meant our freedom to collectively decide what kind of life, form of life, we want to live, and to build the institutions and so on in order to do that. And we’re, I would say, people today are alienated from all of those things. I mean there’s nothing more alienated, in terms of labor, than having to follow some script in interacting with customers, either on the phone or at a fast food joint, while you’re also doing some backbreaking and repetitive labor in hot and horrible conditions. So we’re no strangers to alienated labor. Even, I mean I think the popularity of freelancing and all of this, even though that’s quite mystified in certain ways it does bespeak a hunger for creativity, being able to determine how you use your time, being an individual, not just being under the watchful surveillance of somebody else’s script. All of that is important, but I would say the deepest meaning of alienation and being unalienated has to do with freedom and democracy. Meaning capitalism basically steals from us, not just our labor and energy, but our ability to decide collectively the most important questions about how we want to live. How hard do we want to work? How many hours? How much leisure do we want to have? What do we want to leave for future generations? How do we want to relate to non-human nature? What should we do with the social surplus that we collectively produce? These are the fundamental questions about the shape of our lives. And they are decided now, essentially, by a small handful of people who appropriate the surplus we produce and basically use market mechanisms to invest it for the sake of maximal expansion on and on, and on and on.
DD: In other words, we live in a society where Elon Musk gets to decide that he is firing a car into space for fun, and that’s how our social wealth is being used.
NF: Exactly. Absolutely. Whereas there might be many many other things that we would prefer to do with that wealth. We might even prefer to produce less wealth and to live more simply and companionably, and socially, and easily, in a more relaxed way. Absolutely. So the freedom that people speak about in liberal democracy that we have is so poor, it’s so limited, it’s so paltry. And this is even apart from the compromise of voting registration and money in politics. Just the way the agenda is defined to exclude all the most fundamental questions, to let Elon Musk decide them. It’s such a poor and paltry thing and we could have such a freer and more democratic life, but that’s not compatible with capitalism.
DD: Two other things that I want to discuss with regard to social reproduction: first, the politics of immigration. As anthropologist Leo Chavez, and I’m sure many others as well, have suggested, it’s something that’s very much enmeshed in questions of social reproduction. On the one hand, there’s the notion that Latinos and Latinas, in particular, because of higher birthrates, pose a demographic threat. Representative Steve King, who’s this leading nativist Republican from Iowa, infamously tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” It was obscene but quite exemplary, I think. And then on the other hand, you also see this in immigration enforcement with the recent policy of family separation. Could you talk a little bit about nativism as a social reproduction––nativism, xenophobia, racism––as a social reproduction crisis?
NF: It’s such an interesting question. And there are so many complexities because, historically, when the ideas about reproduction have been racialized what people want to produce is, let’s say, a pure white race of people etc. But they, periodically, have always needed people of color to do the grunt work for that. I mean that’s what slavery is all about, for example, to do the grunt work of caring for the babies, of cooking the food, and all of that so-called house slave labor, as well as the food production and other forms of production. So it’s, I think, another example…I mean, you actually don’t really find people who are consistently segregationist in this sense, and who don’t still want to freeload and free ride off of people of color. So they’re in a certain kind of performative contradiction themselves. And the other really interesting thing, which I think creates a real dilemma for the left, it is, above all, global corporate capital that wants more immigration. They want workers. And it has historically, by and large, been organized labor that has wanted more restrictive immigration. That sort of turns the––our hope for ideas about class struggle on their head. There really is, one would have to distinguish between aspects of the situation in which immigration might really hurt existing workers, and I don’t think that’s the case much in the United States today, and cases where it’s a pure phantasm with no real objective basis. And the problem is that we don’t have a global labor regime with global labor rights, global labor protections, global labor entitlements, so that there is an unevenness in how workers can be treated and paid throughout the world. Capital loves that and takes advantage of it. Organized labor rightly objects, but is so weak in the United States today––
DD: But objects to the individuals, rather than the structure, rather than the segmented market in the first place.
NF: Right, exactly. It just hunkers down to protect a small and dwindling existing membership against the “other,” which is exactly, again, the wrong way to go.
DD: Well, Nancy Fraser, thank you so much for your time.
NF: You’re very welcome. It’s been a really interesting conversation, and I thank you.