An Interview with Nancy Fraser

The L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History was thrilled to welcome Dr. Nancy Fraser on 29 October 2021 as a guest speaker in our Syndemic Lecture Series.

A Talk with Nancy Fraser, Syndemic Series, Wilson Institute

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

MCKAY: Thank you so much, Dr. Nancy Fraser, for joining us tonight. We’re really delighted at the Wilson Institute to have you share your insights into the “perfect storm” that the pandemic has represented for so many of us. For all who follow critical theory, socialist feminism, and the ideas of the transnational left, Nancy Fraser is a renowned figure. Her books have changed a generation’s understanding of the complex past and contested future of global capitalism. Some of her earlier titles are Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections On The Post-Socialist Condition (1997), which examines the impact of neoliberalism on the left;  Fortunes Of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism To Neoliberal Crisis (2013), which charts a transition from redistribution to recognition in feminist thought, and The Old Order Is Dying And The New Cannot Be Born (2019) which examines the global ecological economic and social breakdown that has undermined any notion that neoliberal capitalism is beneficial for the majority. Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (2018) features a conversation with Rahel Jaeggi on how best to conceive and transform the institutionalized social order that is contemporary capitalism – a brilliant book to use for anyone who’s interested in exploring the really complex critical theory around capitalism, in a very conversational and an accessible way. So, in short, Nancy Fraser has long been a leading progressive feminist thinker for our times

FRASER: Thank you so much, Ian, for that very generous introduction and for this invitation. I’m really pleased to be able to participate in this wonderful series…. So, my topic… is the “Covid Pandemic: A Perfect Storm of Capitalist Irrationality and Injustice.”

Covid-19 … is lighting up all the fault lines of our society, especially fault lines of gender and colour, of nation and class, and that is absolutely true. But I still believe that we do not hear enough about the social system that generates those fault lines, even though it’s the same social system, I will suggest, that brought us the virus in the first place and that is blocking our efforts to deal with it.

So, my proposal in this talk is, in effect, to stop tiptoeing around and cut to the chase. What the pandemic really diagnoses, I claim, is the deep-seated dysfunctionality of capitalism. Truth be told, … Covid is a “perfect storm” of capitalist irrationality and injustice.

More than anything in recent memory, certainly than anything in my lifetime, it discloses the system’s multiple contradictions: ecological, political, social, and economic. All of these contradictions are baked into a social order that incentivizes a profit-hungry class of owners to devour the essential conditions of their own existence, and what’s worse, the essential conditions of our existence. It incentivizes them, in other words, to guzzle care work, to scarf up nature, to eviscerate public power, to wolf down the wealth of racialized populations, and to suck dry the energy and creativity of all working people.

Those things that I just listed are in my view essential preconditions of production and accumulation, as well as of life on the planet. And that’s precisely the rub. Capitalist society is structured in a way that begs the profit-makers to gobble them up in order to fatten their own share prices, even while it absolves them of any obligation to replenish what they take, or to repair what they damage. So, the effect is not only to leave a trail of wreckage across the globe, but … also to periodically destabilize the whole jerry-built edifice of capitalist society. That’s my diagnosis in a nutshell, and what I want to argue here is that Covid-19 offers a textbook demonstration of this proposition. The pandemic is a switch point where all of capitalism’s contradictions converge – where cannibalism of nature, care work, and political capacity, of peripheralized populations and working classes, merge together in a lethal binge.

Now to see why, we need to revisit the concept of capitalism. Our received understandings focus too single-mindedly on the system’s official economy. They identify the core injustice of capitalist society with the exploitation of free waged workers at the point of commodity production, and they designate the system’s defining irrationality as its tendency to precipitate economic crises.

Now, these identifications are not so much wrong as incomplete. Capitalist societies do indeed generate class exploitation and economic crises as a function of their structural dynamics, but they also give rise to additional injustices and irrationalities which are equally structural and serious, but which fail to appear on the radar screen of received understandings. These extra economic defects of capitalist society are deeply implicated, I’ll try to show, in the present crisis. If we hope to interpret the latter correctly and figure out how to overcome it, we need to develop a new expanded conception of capitalism that foregrounds not just the system’s economy but the relation of its economy to its non-economic conditions of possibility.

So let me just briefly mention four such non-economic conditions for the possibility of a capitalist economy. The first is social reproduction, or as many now call it, care work. Included here are all the activities that create, socialize, nurture, sustain, and replenish the human beings who occupy positions in the economy. You can’t have a capitalist economy without workers who produce commodities under the aegis of for-profit enterprises. And you can’t have them without caregivers who reproduce human beings in settings external to the official economy. Care work includes gestation, birthing, nursing, feeding, bathing, socializing, educating, healing, protecting, solacing – in short, everything essential to sustaining beings (namely us) who are at once biological and social. Now historically much of this work has been unwaged and performed by women, often in households, but also in communities, neighbourhoods, and villages, in civil society associations, in public sector agencies, and increasingly, it must be said nowadays, in for-profit firms, including private schools and private nursing homes. But wherever it’s done, social reproduction is an indispensable precondition for the production of commodities, for the making of profit, and the accumulation of capital. Yet, capital goes to very great lengths to avoid paying for care work or, failing that, to pay as little as possible for it, and that is a setup for trouble, because capitalist societies incentivize business to free-ride on care work with no obligation to replenish it. They entrench a deep-seated tendency to social reproductive crisis as well as a gender order that subordinates women. So that’s number one.

Now a second precondition for a capitalist economy is ecological. Just as a capitalist economy depends on care work, so too it presupposes the availability of energy to power production, of material substrates including so-called raw materials for labour to transform, and of sinks for absorbing waste. Capital relies, in short, on nature – in the sense, first, of specific substances inputted directly into production; and second, of general environmental conditions such as breathable air, potable water, fertile soil, relatively stable sea levels, and a habitable climate. But here again is the rub: by its very design, capitalist society incentivizes the owners to treat nature as a bottomless trove of non-economic treasure – there for the taking and infinitely self-regenerating, not needing replenishment or repair. This too, we have finally realized, is a recipe for disaster. Capitalist societies institutionalize a structural tendency to economic crisis as well as profound disparities in vulnerability to the ensuing fallout.

Now those disparities point to a third condition for the possibility of capitalist accumulation, namely wealth commandeered from subject populations. Almost always racialized, such populations are designated for expropriation as opposed to exploitation. They are deprived of state protection and of actionable rights. So, their land and labour can be taken without remuneration and funnelled into the circuits of accumulation. Expropriation has often been seen as an early (superseded) feature of a system that piles up wealth by exploiting free workers in factories, but that’s a mistake. Capitalist production would not be profitable without an ongoing stream of cheap inputs, including natural resources and unfree or dependent labour confiscated from populations who’ve been subjected through conquest enslavement, unequal exchange, incarceration, or predatory debt, and who are therefore unable to fight back. It’s been said that “Behind Manchester stood Mississippi,” meaning that slave labor supplied the cheap raw cotton that fed the iconic textile mills at the dawn of industrialization… The same is true today. “Behind Cupertino stands Kinshasa” (Cupertino, the headquarters of Apple; Kinshasa where coltan for iPhones [is] mined on the cheap, at times by enslaved Congolese children).

In truth capitalist society is necessarily imperialist, continuously creating defenseless populations for expropriation. Its economy doesn’t work if everyone is paid wages that cover their true reproduction costs. It doesn’t work, in other words, without a global colour line dividing populations that are merely exploitable from those that are downright expropriable. By institutionalizing that division, capitalism also entrenches imperialism and racial oppression.

There is … a fourth background condition for a capitalist economy, namely public power (paradigmatically, but not only, state power). Accumulation cannot proceed, after all, without legal systems that guarantee private property and… contractual exchange, nor without repressive forces that manage dissent, put down rebellions, and enforce the status hierarchies that enable corporations to expropriate racialized populations at home and abroad. Neither can the system function without public regulations and public goods (including infrastructure of various kinds) and a stable money supply. Indispensable for accumulation, these things cannot be provided through the market, but only via the exercise of public power. Capital needs such power… But [it] is also primed to undermine it, by evading taxes, weakening regulations, offshoring operations, or capturing regulatory agencies. The result is a set of built-in tensions between the economic and the political, and a deep-seated tendency to political crisis. On the one hand capitalist societies tend to produce crises of governance in which the system destroys its own capacity to manage the problems it generates. On the other hand, it also tends periodically to precipitate crises of hegemony, in which masses of people defect from politics as usual.

Now, in all four of these cases, capitalist societies, I’ve been suggesting, institute contradictory relations between… economies and [their] non-economic conditions of possibility. These relations become visible only when we understand capitalism broadly not as a mere economic system but as an institutionalized social order that also includes social reproduction, nature, wealth expropriated from racialized populations, and public power, all of which are essential to accumulation – and yet are depleted and destabilized by it. Viewed this way, capitalism harbours multiple crisis tendencies and structural injustices. Above and beyond its propensity to economic crisis, the system is primed to precipitate social, political, and ecological crises. Above and beyond economic exploitation, it entrenches gender and sexual subordination, racial imperial domination, environmental injustice, and denial of everyone’s robust political freedoms. Largely invisible to received understandings, the full range of capitalist injustice and irrationality appears with blazing clarity when we assume the expanded view. That view, I want to suggest, provides the conceptual toolkit we need to parse the present crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic, as I noted before, is a switch point in my interpretation, where all of capitalism’s injustices and irrationalities converge, where cannibalization of nature, care work, …and [the] political capacity of peripheralized populations and working classes, all merge together in a lethal binge.

Now, I want to take a closer look at Covid-19 and the present conjuncture. Now let’s consider first nature, which, as I just suggested, is the site of the system’s ecological contradiction. It was none other than capitalism’s cannibalization of that vital support of its own existence and of ours that exposed humans to SARS-CoV-2 in the first place. Long harboured by bats in remote caves, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 made the zoonotic leap to us in 2019 by way of some bridging species, possibly pangolins. But what brought the bats into contact with that intermediary and the latter into contact with us [were] the combined effects of global warming on the one hand and tropical deforestation on the other. Now both of those processes are progeny of capital, driven by its hunger for profit. Together, deforestation and global warming eviscerated the habitats of innumerable species, triggering mass migrations, creating new proximities among previously distanced but now distressed organisms, and promoting novel transfers of pathogens among them. That dynamic has already precipitated a string of viral epidemics, each passed from bats or some other originating species to humans via some amplifying host. We have HIV-AIDS, Nipah, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and now of course Covid-19.

I hate to say it, but you already know it’s true:  more such pandemics will come. They are the non-accidental by-products of a social order that puts nature at the mercy of capital [with its inherent incentive to] appropriate biophysical wealth as quickly and cheaply as possible, with no responsibility for repair or replenishment. Those dedicated to amassing profit decimate rainforests and bombard the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Hell-bent on accumulation in every era, but massively empowered by neoliberalism, they have let loose an escalating cascade of lethal plagues.

Now, Covid-19’s effects on humans would be horrific under any conditions, but they have been incalculably worsened by another strand of the present crisis rooted in another structural contradiction of capitalist society which has also been sharpened to a fever pitch in the neo-liberal era. It is after all not just nature that capital has cannibalized in this period, but also public power. That too, as I suggested before, is an essential ingredient of its diet, avidly consumed in every phase of the system’s development but devoured with special ferocity in the last 40 years — and that’s the catch. The political capacities that financialized capital has gorged on are precisely those we could have used to mitigate the pandemic – but no such luck. Well before the Covid-19 outbreak, most states bowed to the demands of the markets by slashing social spending, including in public health infrastructure and basic research. With a few exceptions, notably Cuba, they drew down stockpiles of life-saving equipment – PPE, ventilator, syringes, medicines test kits, and so on – they gutted diagnostic capacities, they shrank coordination and treatment capacities, closing public hospitals and ICU units. Having eviscerated the public infrastructure, moreover, our rulers devolved vital health care functions to profit-driven providers and insurers, to pharmaceuticals and manufacturers. Now, these firms, which are constitutively uninterested in and unconstrained by the public interest, now control the lion’s share of the world’s health-related resources, the labour forces and raw materials, the machinery and production facilities, the supply chains and intellectual property, the research institutions and personnel – all the things which together determine our fates, individual and collective. Committed to preserving their profit streams, they form a private force… that blocks concerted public action on behalf of humanity. The effects are tragic but unsurprising: a social system that subjects matters of life-and-death to the law of value was structurally primed from the get-go to abandon untold millions to Covid-19. But that’s not all.

The collapse of already weak public systems converged with another structural contradiction of capitalist society centered on social reproduction. Always a staple of capital’s consumption, care work has been voraciously gobbled up by it in recent years. The same regime that divested from public health care infrastructure also weakened unions and drove down wages, compelling increased hours of paid work per household, including from primary caregivers. In other words, neoliberalism offloaded care work onto families and communities at just the moment when it commandeered the social energies we needed to perform it. The effect was to turn capitalism’s inherent tendency to destabilize social reproduction into an acute care crunch. Covid-19’s advent has intensified this strand of crisis too, dumping major new care chores on families and communities, especially onto women who still do the lion’s share of unpaid care work. Under lockdown, as we know, childcare and schooling shifted into people’s homes, leaving parents to take on that burden on top of others, in confined domestic spaces ill-suited to those purposes. Many employed women ended up quitting their jobs to care for kids and other relatives, while many others were laid off by employers. Both groups face major losses in position and pay, if and when they rejoin the workforce. A third group privileged to keep their jobs and work remotely from home (while also performing care work, including for housebound kids) have had to take multitasking to new heights of craziness. A fourth group which includes both women and men bears the honorific “essential workers,” but is paid a pittance and treated as disposable – required to brave the threat of infection daily, along with the fear of bringing it home, in order to produce and distribute the stuff that enabled others to shelter in place.

Now in each of these cases, the work of social reproduction (now swollen by the pandemic) still falls largely to women, as it has in every phase of capitalism’s history. But which women end up in which category depends on colour and class. So, let’s turn now to them. A built-in feature of capitalist society, structural racism infuses every aspect of the current crisis. At the global level it colours the ecological strand, as capital quenches its thirst for cheap nature by seizing land energy and mineral wealth from racialized populations… deprived of political protection and actionable rights. Subjected variously to conquest, enslavement, genocide, dispossession by debt, and so on, these populations now bear an undue share of the global environmental load… Vulnerable to toxic dumping and so-called natural disasters, and to multiple lethal impacts of global warming, they now find themselves – no surprise – last in line for vaccination. At the national level, meanwhile, race infects the political and social reproductive strands of the crisis, as communities of colour are denied access to conditions that promote health, affordable high quality medical care, clean water, nutritious food, safe working and living conditions.

So, it’s no wonder that their members were disproportionately killed and infected by Covid-19. The reasons are not mysterious: poverty and inferior health care, pre-existing medical conditions linked to stress, poor nutrition, exposure to toxins, over-representation in front-line jobs that could not be performed remotely, lack of resources that would permit them to refuse unsafe work, and lack of labor rights that would permit them to win protections, inferior housing and living arrangements that don’t allow for social distancing and that facilitate transmission, diminished access to the vaccine. Together these conditions have expanded the meaning of the slogan Black Lives Matter, synergizing with its original reference to police violence and helping to fuel ongoing protests.

Colour, of course, is deeply entwined with class in the capitalist world system generally and in the present period particularly. In fact, the two overlapped considerably, as the category “essential worker” shows. If we leave aside medical professionals, that designation covers migrant farm workers, immigrant meatpacking and slaughterhouse workers, Amazon warehouse packers, UPS drivers, nursing home aides, hospital cleaners, supermarket stockers and cashiers, those who deliver groceries and take out meals. Especially dangerous in Covid-19 times, these jobs are mostly low-paid, non-unionized, and precarious, bereft of benefits and labour protections, subject to intrusive supervision and relentless speed-up… They are disproportionately filled by women and people of colour. Taken together, these jobs and those who perform them represent the face of the working class in financialized capitalism, no longer epitomized by the figure of the white male miner, factory operative, and construction worker. That class now consists paradigmatically of caregivers and low-wage service workers (paid less than the cost of its reproduction, when paid at all), [and] it is expropriated as well as exploited. Covid-19 has exposed that dirty secret as well. By juxtaposing the essential character of that class’s work to capital’s systematic undervaluation of it, the pandemic testifies to another major contradiction of capitalist society: the inability of markets in labour-power to accurately reckon the real worth of work.

In general, then Covid-19 is a perfect storm of capitalist irrationality and injustice. By ratcheting up the system’s inherent defects to the breaking point, it shines a piercing beam on all the structural contradictions of our society. Dragging them out from the shadows and into the daylight, the pandemic reveals capital’s inherent drive to cannibalize nature up to the very brink of planetary conflagration, to divert our capacities away from the truly essential work of social reproduction, to eviscerate public power to the point where it cannot solve the problems the system generates, to feed off the ever-decreasing wealth and health of racialized people, and to not only exploit but also expropriate the working class. We could not ask for a better lesson in social theory. But now comes the hard part: putting that lesson to work in political practice.

MCKAY: Thank you very much, Dr. Fraser. I have a few questions I’d like to ask. The first one relates to your theme of crisis.  You’re really saying that there’s a deep-seated tendency to ecological crisis at the very core of the capitalist system. This is in its DNA… There’s a general crisis whose effects metastasize everywhere, shaking confidence in the established worldviews and ruling elites… I truly thought it was very pertinent that you used a quotation of Antonio Gramsci for one of your most recent books: “The old world is dying, and the new world cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Well, few can doubt that we’ve passed through a world crisis in this pandemic, with manifold morbid symptoms.

But I wonder if there’s a risk that crisis talk can, paradoxically, be both overwhelming and underwhelming – both suggesting something so vast that it seems beyond our power to control it (like global climate change) and yet, often, just … a way to add juice to journalism (like the contemporary “crisis” afflicting the Montreal Canadiens, for example). In Capitalism: A Conversation, you yourself raised the question of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” And you remark, there’s a kind of absurdity in the posture of those who repeatedly announce the imminent collapse of capitalism and meanwhile everything carries on just as before. Are you suggesting, with your metaphor of “the perfect storm,” something like Gramsci’s organic crisis, a mega-crisis combining a host of more particular ones? And could a hostile critic charge you yourself with “crying wolf”?

FRASER: Thank you Ian, that’s a very rich and beautifully formulated question… There are many different parts of it. Let me start with trying to distinguish the kind of loose crisis talk that you refer to. (I don’t know what’s going on in Montreal – but… I know that it’s meant to be an example of the way people throw around this word). Let’s distinguish loose crisis talk from a critical-theoretical conception of crisis. And here, before we say too much about “crisis,” we have to distinguish a crisis tendency.

In critical theory, and you find this in Marx and in subsequent critical theorists, the idea is that a social system can have built into it tensions or contradictions that incline it to precipitate crises under certain conditions (or absent other countervailing tendencies). The thing is that when these crises erupt (and they don’t erupt that often, in my view) – when they erupt, their roots lie in the social system itself – in the dynamics as triggered or facilitated by conjunctural developments… The reason it’s important to have this concept of “crisis” in critical theory is that we need it to distinguish between problems that are not deeply anchored in the social system and then can be fixed without a major overhaul of the social system, on the one side, and those that arise precisely as a result of the working out of the dynamics of the social system and which might require a more radical fix. As I said in the talk, my view is that capitalism as a system has built into it at least four or five distinct tendencies to crises. That doesn’t mean that they’re always in full flower, and it doesn’t mean that they always coincide.

Now we get to the part about organic crisis and so on…. We should distinguish between a sectoral crisis and a general crisis. A sectoral crisis would be one in which, let’s say, one of these crisis tendencies has been sort of rumbling along and piling up dysfunctionalities until there’s a real apparent social blockage. You could say that, even though it didn’t result in a full-scale collapse, … the 2007-08 financial crisis was a sectoral crisis…. It gave the appearance of being confined to the terrain of finance, and you might have expected, as I did, that a rational response would have included some major restructuring of how finance works. That didn’t happen, and so I suspect that that’s there’s still a ticking time bomb there, and we might not have heard the last of it. In any case, that’s a sectoral crisis.

Now what would happen, though, if all of the four crisis tendencies that I outlined here were to converge and burst into full flower at once? Then, you would have a crisis of the whole social order….I think there have been some of these, but very few. This doesn’t happen a lot. So, in other words, this “Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf” [critique] would apply if one were saying it’s always [happening], but I think we shouldn’t be intimidated by that.

There’s a great …cartoon that appeared many years ago that I’ve never forgotten in the New Yorker, in which some cows are standing around in a field. And one cow comes running up to them and says, “Guys, I just found out where hamburger comes from.” And the other one says to him, “Oh, you leftists and your conspiracy theories.” So, in other words, let’s not be intimidated by “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” – talked into saying that capitalism doesn’t tend to produce crises. It does. It’s just that not too many of them have this spectacular form of a general crisis.

Maybe there have been three or four such crises in the history of capitalism. The last one was certainly in the… 1920s and 30s. (There are those who would say that actually the whole period from the brink of World War I to the end of World War II was one long general crisis of a whole social order.) My hunch (and there’s no way you could know this for sure except ex-post [facto]) … is that we are living in a period now where the ecological crisis is converging with this crisis of public power, with the crisis of social reproduction, and with the crisis of livelihood and work. So that doesn’t mean… capitalism is going to collapse tomorrow….This could fester for quite a long time and there’s no guarantee that it will be resolved at all, or in a way that would be at all desirable.

There’s one other distinction that I would like to introduce and that’s the distinction between a developmental crisis and an epochal crisis. A developmental crisis marks the sort of breakdown of one regime of capital accumulation, like liberal laissez-faire capitalism or social democratic New Deal capitalism. It marks the unravelling of a regime that managed for a while to keep the crisis at bay, that managed to finesse or soften the contradictions. When a regime unravels – here’s where we get to the Gramsci language – there’s an interregnum period, and that’s when you get a lot of interesting political developments. All sorts of people begin to think outside the box. They’re looking for something fundamentally different, for better or for worse (often for worse). … In the past when such crises have happened, and they’ve been rare, they have been resolved not by the abolition of capitalism, but by the reinvention of capitalism in a new form. So, [with respect to] liberal laissez-faire, colonial capitalism, [its] crisis got solved through the creation of social democratic, New Deal capitalism. The crisis of [that regime in turn] led to neoliberalism …It’s the crisis of neoliberal capitalism that we are living in now. We can’t know whether the outcome (if it’s resolved at all) will be a new form of capitalism or a post- or non-capitalist alternative, meaning we don’t know whether it’s merely a developmental crisis in which capitalism develops a new form or whether it’s a genuinely epochal crisis in which… we get some brand-new form of social organization.

Anyway, that’s just a quick attempt to spell out some of the issues that I think are packed into your very rich question. …To end this answer, I should just reiterate that my hypothesis (which I can’t fully substantiate) is that we are in a period of general crisis and, much as I don’t want to be a crisis-monger, the global warming piece of it to me looks like a game-changer… I do feel something has to give and the politics of our moment, which may go on for some decades, are going to be extremely rocky as the dust settles and we figure out where the world is going to go…

MCKAY: That’s an incredibly helpful answer and a brilliant segue into the second question, which is really more about neoliberalism as a specific way of organizing capitalism. I’m noticing that a lot of people are writing obits for neoliberalism….Unlikely suspects – the Financial Times of all things – are saying “It’s quite passé—we’re not going to use that language anymore.”

As a student of C.B. Macpherson, a political theorist of liberalism, I keep being struck by the links between [its] classical social reformist, corporate and Keynesian forebearers [with] today’s neoliberalism. To work with your metaphor of the perfect storm: after George Clooney (a.k.a. Captain Klein) goes down with the ship, having disregarded all the better-informed experts in his madcap voyage to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, can we really be sure that his successors will transform his hyper-competitive macho ways and limit their insatiable ego-driven drive to gobble up more and more stuff from nature?  Or, to go back to the metaphor of Adam Tooze, if neoliberalism has become a “bad brand,” can we really be sure its manufacturers aren’t just going to stick a new label on the tin?

You argue in your book on Capitalism,  … “as a hegemonic project neoliberalism is finished; it may retain its capacity to dominate but it has lost its ability to persuade.” I really hope you’re right, and yet I fear you’re wrong. As Tooze went on to remark “as a practice of government  neoliberalism is a far harder beast to kill and if you think about neoliberalism as a structure of social interest, as a class project, it marches on unambiguously.” So, Macpherson might say that what made today’s neoliberals so persuasive to people (and maybe they’re still persuasive) is that they repackaged age-old Lockean notions about property and the primacy of the individual and his possessions…. These arguably toxic truisms persuade us still, in my view. So, are you really sure it’s time to bid a dry-eyed adieu to the neoliberal age and its underlying individualistic assumptions?

FRASER: Well, that’s … a very challenging question. Just to clarify: I think that Tooze and I are in agreement. I think that we’re both saying that [neoliberalism] remains in force. The global financial architecture, the rules of the road of the world economy, are neoliberal. Nothing has changed. It remains in force. What I’ve been saying is that it doesn’t command the same level – anywhere near the same level – of mass support. I mean there was a time when all sorts of working-class people in England and the United States…  thought that their living conditions were problematic because there was too much government red tape and that the answer was to have more markets. I don’t think anybody believes that now or many fewer people believe that. [The] two pillars of hegemony for Gramsci are force and consent. [Neoliberalism] has force but doesn’t have the same level of consent.

You see that in all of the resurgent forms of populism especially on the right but in a few cases populisms of the left. These are all, in one sense or another, protectionist. (Or at least that’s how they campaign when they run for office – what they do when they get in power is another matter)… Populist strongmen represent the idea that “I’m going to work for you.”  …

Now, it would help … in this discussion if we try to say a little bit more about what neoliberalism is, because it’s a word, as you say, that everybody uses and not everyone means the same thing by it. Every form of capitalism, whether we’re talking about mercantile capitalism, liberal laissez-faire capitalism, social democratic capitalism, neoliberal – every form of historic capitalism has to. in some way or another, establish a relationship between the political and the economic, between production and social reproduction, between society and nature.  These are sites of tension and contradiction, by definition, of any capitalist society. Each regime has a different way of finessing, massaging, and softening those contradictions.

Neoliberalism can be well understood by contrast to the previous period of social democratic capitalism. Social democratic capitalism relied on the Bretton Woods financial architecture to give states (especially wealthy states, of course, it must be said) a set of tools by which they could direct, steer, and manage their national economies through deficit spending, currency devaluation, all kinds of tools that allowed them to keep the social reproductive contradiction at bay, for example, by social spending, social insurance, all that kind of stuff. Neoliberalism took that away. We have a new relation between corporations and states now, and it was precipitated by the dismantling of the Bretton Woods capital controls, the dropping of the gold standard, and so on and so forth, which deprived states of this Keynesian toolkit. The exception of course is the US, because the dollar is world money. We can simply print more and more of it and can get away with murder, so to speak, in this realm as in others.

So, the previous regime, in a sense, empowered states to discipline capital for its own good. This regime allows markets and global investors to discipline states. Witness the… gutting of the Syriza government’s attempt to refuse austerity… So, states (with the exception of a very few) are weakened vis-à-vis production/reproduction.  Neoliberalism has [meant] a huge change in the nature of labour markets. It has recruited women en masse into labour markets and has changed the whole relation of production and reproduction as a result. In place of the old family wage (one salary can support a family), we now have the so-called two-earner family, which may sound gender-egalitarian and positive. In reality it is a system for draining more and more hours of time from every household, with less and less remuneration. You’ve got people running around from one job to another, etc., and social reproduction is suffering. That’s the condition that the pandemic supervened on top of, it was already there.

[With respect to] the nature part ­–  we’ve got all the new enclosures, privatization of water, all kinds of things. Just think about the difference in environmental regulation. I rarely offer the US as a positive example of anything, but we did actually lead the way in the previous regime in establishing the Environmental Protection Agency… The jewel in its crown was the superfund. The superfund cleans up toxic work dumps by taxing petrochemical and mining corporations. This was not trading permits and offsets, using the market. This was using coercive state power: you dump the stuff, we take your money. That’s a [contrast to] what environmental regulation means now.

…What I’m trying to suggest is that, if we think about what neoliberalism is from the standpoint of this enlarged view of capitalism,  then we have to look at these fundamental four relations I identified and look at how they differ and how they quickly… unravel — how very quickly they lead to unavoidable disaster. All sorts of things that shouldn’t be in a rational world exist, do exist. So neoliberal capitalism at this point has no rational basis for continuing. That doesn’t mean it …won’t continue in the future.

MCKAY: Thank you. I’d like to now switch to your very bracing far-reaching and controversial critique of what I would call the existing left, and I’d like to take up its three components in turn.

First, and most controversially perhaps, you present a sharp critique of actually existing feminism, at least in its predominant modes. Liberal feminists (along with many LGBTQ+ leaders) bought into what you explosively call “progressive neoliberalism.” Lean-in-and-break-the-glass-ceiling corporate feminists offered charisma and excitement to what remained a highly oppressive system for the majority of the population. [Progressives] settled for diversity and inclusion – all of these buzzwords that come at us every day, on terms that consign most women to the same old oppression. Especially since the 1990s, you write, and I quote, “hegemonic currents of emancipatory movements became allied with neoliberal forces aiming to financialize the capitalist economy.” Do you detect signs of a post-pandemic movement away from this very liberal and, of late, neoliberal form of feminism?

FRASER: I want to say that, first of all, there were always other feminisms. This is a critique of a hegemonic dominant current of feminism, one that has been elevated by the media to represent feminism per se, as if there were nothing else. But there have always been currents of Black feminism, of socialist and Marxist feminism, of Indigenous feminism, all kinds of feminism that wanted to represent a… “feminism for the 99%….”

Now I think this whole question of hegemony that we were just talking about is relevant here too. 2016 is a watershed. Who was the candidate that Trump defeated? Hillary Clinton – the icon of liberal feminism. The person who wrote a book called It Takes a Village and gave behind-closed-door speeches to Wall Street for six-figure fees promising that she wasn’t going to change any of the rules to regulate derivatives…

So, in other words, I think that progressive neoliberalism was kind of exposed as a sham as all of these working-class people defected. Whether they went to Trump or Sanders made a great difference to me politically, but from this point of view, … they were all rejecting progressive neoliberalism, and that meant that liberal feminism faced a kind of crisis as well.

Interestingly, it’s around this time that in the US you start getting of the election to congress of a whole slew of Sanders-type female congresswoman, the so-called Squad….Now, they represent something else. They are certainly feminists, but they’re not like single-issue feminists. They are feminists who have a broader critique of the political economy. Some of them claim to be democratic socialists – I’m not 100% sure what exactly they mean when they use that phrase, nor am I sure what Bernie Sanders knows what he means when he uses that phrase – but there’s something in the air.

It’s probably the case in the Global South that there have been what we can call (for shorthand) “feminism for the 99%” in a much more visible way, because in ex-colonial countries that have been ravaged by colonialism before and neo-imperialism today, it’s much harder to…segregate some special class of things called women’s issues from everything else that is destroying people’s lives. So, I think there’s a lot of feminism going on. We wrote that manifesto, Feminism for the 99%, in hopes of … giving it a name, drawing the lines, saying we’re at a fork in the road. Liberal feminism is seemingly collapsing (Okay, that might have been an exaggeration – but it’s in trouble).

So, I think in general that in a time of crisis like this – and now I’m talking about the hegemonic face of the crisis, not the structural phase, but how people react – I think that all the established political orientations begin to bleed support and there are opportunities for good alternatives to develop (as well as some of the very nasty alternatives that are unfortunately are also developing).

MCKAY: That leads to the second group of leftists you’re a bit critical of, … conventional Marxists. Their [purportedly] mouldy models focused exclusively on capital/labour relations at the expense of all the hidden abodes that you’ve documented so well, and without those hidden abodes capitalism couldn’t exist….[It seems] Marxists characteristically ignore three big ways the system free-rides on those it deems outside itself. First of all, …without the unpaid labour mainly of women, it could not function, because their largely unremunerated work creates the very entities – workers – whose labour-power capitalism necessarily must exploit, not to speak of all the other caring functions that you also enumerated. And without the supposedly free resources supplied by non-human nature, there would not, similarly, be any commodities upon which capitalism could profit. And without public power, what we misleadingly called “private enterprise” could neither come into being nor perpetuate itself. Now, I’m wondering – can the upshot of these three hard-hitting feminist and eco-socialist critiques still be called “Marxism”?

FRASER: I do call myself a Marxist. I’m not an orthodox Marxist… It’s kind of awkward to start piling up adjectives: I’m a democratic socialist, feminist, eco-something Marxist. Sometimes it’s just easier to say, “Yes I’m a Marxist, but of a different kind.”

I know this is going to sound absurdly presumptuous, so forgive me in advance – but Einstein didn’t refute Newton. He resituated Newtonian physics in a broader frame within the field of objects of a certain size, not too small, not too big, etc. Newtonian physics works pretty damn well, but there’s a larger field, and so it’s not the whole anymore. Something like that is what I’ve been trying to do with Marx. Not that I would compare myself to Einstein, but I think that a lot of what Marx has to say about the official economy is right, it’s just that the background conditions are presumed. He was very upfront about this in Capital,  which… presents an abstract idealized picture that assumes that certain other things are in place that are that are not even talked about. So, I see myself as re-situating the Marxian analysis of the capitalist economy, not refuting it.

MCKAY: Finally I wanted to get to the tough words you have to say about anarchists and neo-anarchists [who] have been so prominent in the post-1990s left through such movements as Altermondialisation, Occupy, and a host of identity-based leftisms.  They fall short, you suggest, in three ways. First of all, although they preach a gospel of non-domination, in practice only a tiny minority people can devote their lives to demonstrating (and for a good many people demonstrating means the risk of deportation). Secondly, although they preach a radical democracy in practice, in the absence of much clear structure, it’s actually hard to tell how decisions are made. And third, although they preach challenging the foundations of capitalism, they deliver an unsustainable “constant meeting” guaranteed to burn people out rather than shaking any of [capitalism’s] foundations…. Could we add to that list a fourth [critique] derived from the pandemic itself, which is that contrary to the anarchist tradition, we have been taught in the harshest possible way that we need a global public power guided by science, with the capacity to enforce measures necessary for the survival and flourishing of the species? So, what is your take on where the pandemic has left this powerful libertarian current of contemporary new leftism?

FRASER: Well, that’s a very thoughtfully constructed question…. I teach at the New School and … suddenly all my students were anarchists at a certain point….It kind of drove me crazy, I have to say. We were … a few blocks from Occupy, from Zuccotti Park. That whole movement had such enormous charisma. There was just this thing in the air that to be really radical, you couldn’t have votes, you couldn’t have spokespeople, you couldn’t have leadership, you couldn’t have a program a set of demands, etc. etc.

There was (and maybe there still is) a certain crisis of organization on the left. And it’s as if people think that because we don’t want a Leninist party, therefore we don’t want any party, therefore we don’t want any sort of political structures. There’s got to be something in between, which I think we still are searching for. So, I agree with all of the points that you raised about the failings of anarchism. I also agree very strongly with your last point that, again, if you wanted a textbook demonstration of why we need public powers, the pandemic is it. Maybe the most serious thing to say about anarchism is that… it’s too focused on the state. States can be very oppressive. But, [by] weakening states, what are you then going to have? Is Exxon Mobil is going to run things? Is Google going to run things? Facebook? So anyway, we have to put together the corporations, the states, the democratic publics and come up with new models for how public power is constituted and exercised. I don’t think those have been seriously thought through.

Now having said all of that, I know from my students [that] they believe that a lot of what I have just said to you, and what I’ve written on this subject, is much too simple-minded and doesn’t take into account the great sophisticated new forms of anarchist theorizing that have gone on, which I confess that I’m not deeply immersed in…

MCKAY: I’ll just ask one more thing and then we should turn it over to our audience. The one thing I really appreciated about your book Capitalism: A Conversation was the way you … went after moralizing finger-pointing – talking-down to rural and working-class people – often with the insinuation that they [are] culturally and backward and stupid. I think you say that’s a sure-fire way to generate resentment, not solidarity. So, if you dismiss people as a “basket of deplorables,” lo and behold,  they’re apt to tune you out.

Many working people have been shaken loose from their accustomed ideological patterns and are desperate for some policy or person who can offer plausible-sounding alternatives to precarity and dispossession. But if leftists keep on talking to them in a condescending manner – as in, “We know the answers and you’re too dumb and prejudiced and gullible to see them” – well, [they]  are just undermining their own project… I think you point out the shallowness of that stance:  as you write, it “grossly exaggerates the extent to which the problems are inside people’s head while missing the depth of the structural institutional forces that undergird them.” And yet, I was taken by a comment from your sparring partner in Capitalism: A Conversation, when she raises the challenge,  “Might there not be a risk here of minimizing the popular patterns that still call out for critique and most particularly prejudicial patterns of racism and homophobia and sexism?” Isn’t this a very delicate line to walk, in other words?

FRASER: …A lot of progressive people, I think, overemphasize the interpersonal, the bad behaviour, the bad ideas, the bad language, etc. (and that I’m not trying to defend any of that bad stuff – it’s bad).  But if you try to build a politics on that, you become one of these Puritan scolds.

I just read a book I want to recommend. I think it’s well known because it’s already been listed for many prizes, but Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s new book called Race for Profit which is about housing. There is the most beautiful account of what the term structural racism or institutional racism ought to mean; there’s a great political economy of real estate, of housing, of government programs, of the real estate industry, of developers, of appraisers, all of this in which race is at the center. So there are ways to address questions of race that don’t first and foremost consist in calling out individuals.

Let me be clear, because I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t care if people call out the David Dukes and the Richard Spencers… but there’s a difference between that and people who might vote for Trump… I’ve called them opportunistic racists, not necessarily principled card-carrying racists. But they haven’t gone to Ivy League colleges, they don’t know that you’re supposed to say BIPOC instead of a Black or African-American…We are too caught up [on] this level. I feel very strongly about it….

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: … I work in finance and have done for many years, and one of the points about Covid-19 is that, when it started, …was a massive response from central banks,… from governments… All of a sudden, the world was awash with cash…So there from my perspective, the real crisis starts now, as we start to reopen…What’s the next step? Do we go back to how it was? Do we forge ahead with something new? What does that look like and who is going to influence that?

FRASER: Well, thank you for your question. A couple of thoughts about it. One is that the massive dumping or… feeding money into the system was … another example of what we were talking about before – of non-neoliberal policy. All of a sudden, the idea of austerity disappeared and now we had a need for stimulus, for pump-priming, for income support and so on… You would think again if we lived in a rational world that you wouldn’t any longer be hearing from …the “deficit hawks,” but alas we have one in the United States Senate who is single-handedly blocking the passage of Biden’s social spending bill on the grounds that it’s too much debt to take on…

The other thing I want to say:…I can tell you for the US that the picture that you drew, of things getting better for everyone, is not the case. It’s a two-thirds/one-third society. … People who have good pension funds or 401Ks [are doing well] – of course the stock market is booming, they’re not out spending lavishly on vacations and at restaurants and at the opera and so on and so forth – so yes, a lot of savings, and yes, a lot of appreciation. But for the two-thirds, for the working classes, it’s been quite the opposite… My impression is that in many parts of the world this has been a disaster for livelihoods as well as for health.

Where are we going – back, forward? I don’t think we’re going back….It’s hard to imagine how things could really stabilize as they are now, because too much is out of the bag, so to speak, but that doesn’t give us a clear picture of what might come next…. If there’s going to be a new form of capitalism, it’s got to in some sense or another be green – and that’s so hard to understand. Could four-fifths of the global capitalist class simply gang up on the fossil fuel energy sector and expropriate them and say you’re out of business? But that’s what they need to do….

MCKAY: Can I add something here? …On the one hand I can see a kind of 1920s thing going on here, where we’ve gone through this enormous crisis. People want some kind of settlement of it. They want to their sacrifices to be recognized and honoured. And, I think, there’s an enormous exhaustion. I think people are just terribly tired of this. For millions of people,… there’s also this terrible weight of bereavement and grief. So, it does remind me a little bit of the 1920s, with all of the immense dangers and possibilities of that decade.

There’s actually been a really interesting refusal of work going on where people are saying, “Well, we’re just not going to do that job anymore. It’s not worth it. Our lives are too important. Our time is too important.” …That’s a really encouraging thing…A new willingness to resist….I would like to get your own prognostications. Can this be a new moment of resistance for working people?

FRASER: Yes, we’ve quoted Gramsci several times, so let’s also bring in that other old chestnut we owe to him: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” … I feel very energized. For me, this is a great time to be alive. I haven’t felt that way since the 1960s.

People are defecting from the system… That’s been really something. Black Lives Matter … was the first mass militant national movement and now even international movement of militant anti-racism in decades, so there are things going on. As I say, I think feminism is going through a kind of reckoning, and I see more visible alternatives to liberal feminism than I did. Eco-politics… is undergoing a huge, interesting change. It’s no longer a single-issue movement. Now it’s focused on questions like environmental racism or environmental justice and connected up with the defence of social reproduction and communities…. So, there’s a lot happening that that has potential. The problem is, there’s also anti-mask, anti-vaxx, a lot of insanity…. There’s a mass hysteria in the United States in some circles against the teaching of Critical Race Theory in elementary schools which is another one of these insane fantasies that our right wing generates, and our mainstream Republicans are happy to exploit. So, it’s a mixed picture. But there are many good things in this picture and it’s a great time to be alive and to fight for what you what you believe in.

MCKAY: On that note I’d like to thank you, Nancy, so much for this wonderful presentation and question-and-answer and also thank you for all the terrific work you’ve done to explore critical theory and the better world we might create.

[Nancy Fraser spoke to Syndemic on 29 October 2021].

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