Nancy Fraser is Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research and one of the world's leading thinkers in political and social theory. She has been Einstein Fellow of the city of Berlin, and holder of the “Global Justice” Chair at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. She works on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought.
Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange - the book in which she and Axel Honneth debated the question of redistribution versus recognition - has become mandatory reading for all those interested in social justice. Her recent publications include Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World (2008), Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (2013) and Contradictions of capital and care (New Left Review, 2016). Her current research includes a book-in-progress on Abnormal Justice i.e. on "how the struggles for justice are organised, or rather, disorganised, in a period in which we can not count on a grammar of justice that can be recognised as hegemonic".
Professor Fraser is also an active public intelectual that regularly participates in open seminars, discussions and gives interviews (Public seminar; Dissent; openDemocracy; Eurozine; The Guardian; Monthly Review), while she has recently co-signed together with major intelectuals an open letter to European leaders and European institutions to avoid additional austerity measures, deliver humanitarian aid and restructure Greece's debt.
Professor Fraser was recenty in Greece, invited by the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, in order to deliver the 10th Annual Nicos Poulantzas Memorial Lecture. The lecture, under the title “Crises of care: The contradictions of social reproduction in the era of financial capitalism” was given at the Athens' Goethe Institute, on 7.12.2016, with an intoduction to Nancy Fraser and her work by Maria Karamessini, Professor in Labour Economics and Economics of the Welfare State at Panteion University.
Nancy Fraser spoke to Rethinking Greece* about a viable Left vision for the 21th century, the EU project, the question of solidarity both internationally and in Europe and the crisis of neoliberal hegemony in the world. "Anti-austerity in one country is impossible", says Fraser commenting on Greek politics, adding that "a setback here or there does not mean the end of the Left project". She also gives her insight on the recent US election and the formation of reactionary populism along with "progressive neoliberalism", as well as on the issue of social movements becoming "interest groups" deprived of their anticapitalist, radical roots. Fraser also stresses the importance of thinking about social reproduction and social protection internationally and in terms of global finance as well as on the need to consider "non, or post-capitalist possibilities" when tackling these issues:
The social movements that developed in Greece after 2011 seem to have died down after the signing of the 3rd memorandum in 2015, Podemos in Spain has not been able to fulfill their electoral potential and right-wing nationalism is on the rise. Do you think that the European Left has lost its ability to inspire popular movements?
I think that these things develop in fits and starts, not in a smooth line. So I wouldn’t assume that a setback here or there means the end of the Left project. We had all the Occupy and Indignados movements throughout the world, and I would say that Spain and Greece were really the only countries, at least in Europe and North America, who managed to develop something out of those movements: people found a form to institutionalize, at least temporarily, those energies, instead of letting them totally disappear. That is a positive, but it is a different matter as to whether a government can deliver the full set of demands and aspirations of the participants in those movements, or more generally, of the citizens.
The sad part of the Greek experience was frankly, the failure of the Left in other European countries to mobilize in solidarity and to put pressure on governments to change the EU policy, and to insist that the Troika back-off and give Greece some room to breathe. I don’t think there is much that could have been done within one country. We used to talk about “socialism in one country”, well anti-austerity in one country is not easy to do when you have a whole transnational structure of investors, European bureaucrats and Central Banks bearing down on you. So I think that for the long term, the only real answer is a broader, international solidarity among the Left. And that will take some time, for sure.
The other thing I would say is that we are all struggling to figure out what a viable and attractive Left vision and project is for the 21th century. Most people have given up the idea of anything like the command economy in the Soviet sense. There is a lot of interest in de-growth and the commons, solidarity and social economy. But I don’t think yet any of this adds up to a real viable project for the Left. The most important thing is that there is now a major crisis of neoliberal hegemony: in country after country, in waves, people are rejecting that. They don’t necessarily have a viable and defensible project for what to replace it with. This is the beginning of what would be a long process. These things don’t get solved quickly.
What to you think Brexit and the recent vote in Italy could mean for the future of the EU project?
It does seem that the EU project is quite shaky at the moment, and one possibility is that the elites will decide to soften their austerity policies and do more Keynsian type spending. There is even a chance that Donald Trump will do something like this in the US. It is one of the ideas he campaigned on, whether he’ll follow through I don’t know. So there might be a softening of the current austerity regime, but the big question for me is the relocation of manufacturing from the European and North American core countries to the semi-periphery. I don’t think that’s coming back, so this does mean that there is a big question mark over the issue of jobs, and I am talking now about jobs that have some security and that pay a decent wage.
The biggest challenge for whoever is in power, whether it’s an chastened European elite that has been neoliberal and decides that their project is in danger and they are going to shift ground a little bit, or whether it’s a Left or Right populist party, is going to be jobs and social protection of various kinds, support for social reproduction. That requires a tremendous amount of spending, deficit spending. And the question is, first of all, how to get out from under the control of the Central Banks and bond markets who drive the interest rates up to the sky. One idea for the Left, that is very important, would be to think about some new way of organizing finance. Credit is necessary in any economy, of any complexity, but it doesn’t have to be a profit making industry. So one idea that some people have been developing, is to think about how to transform finance into a public utility, like electricity for example. You could have some democratic way of administration, where you allocate credit and loans for projects without trying to please shareholders and investors.
All these things are connected: finance, jobs policy, taxation and what’s going to be the distribution of taxation. Because in the last 20-30 years there has been a major ‘tax strike’ of the wealthy and the corporations, who are paying virtually no taxes. In the US and many northern European countries there has been a huge turning upside down of the arrangements of the social democratic era, when corporations paid significant taxes. They don’t any longer, and that’s part of what neoliberalism did. So, that creates tremendous constrains on what governments can and cannot do. They lack the revenue. They can’t squeeze it out of the ordinary people who then go on a ‘tax revolt’ and vote for right-wing parties that promise no taxes. And when they try, in any one country again, to significantly raise taxes on corporations, then you get the flight of capital elsewhere and the race to the bottom. So, that’s another indication as to why one has to think internationally about these questions.
Some analysts claim that Donald Trump won the election because the Democratic Party put too much emphasis on identity politics (race, gender) and not enough on economic issues. Do you agree with this assessment?
Partially. I think in this election, in the immediate situation, the voters were faced with the choice between two options, which I would call reactionary populism and progressive neoliberalism. On the Trump side, the populist part was where the people say they want a government that protects them, that does what it can to ensure that they have stable jobs, income and family life. In my mind, this is a completely justified and legitimate expectation. But that was entwined with the reactionary part, this tendency to scapegoating: it’s the fault of the immigrants, of the Blacks, of the Muslims, of the gays, of the feminists. So you had mixed together legitimate claims for social protection, social security, economic wellbeing with all the scapegoating.
Then on the Clinton side, what I call the progressive neoliberalism side, you have on the contrary, positive claims for the inclusion of Blacks, Muslims, gays, LGBT, women; demands that you should not organize the social world on exclusion and subordination. That is the progressive side, but that does not get linked not to anything like the social protection policy that the Trump side had. It gets linked instead with the dynamic sectors of our economy, which are finance, information technology, media and entertainment, and which support a policy of so-called free trade, open borders, all the free trade agreements and the deregulation of finance.
So, these are two strange groups. If you want to think about it on terms of redistribution and recognition, you could say that on the Clinton side you have progressive recognition and regressive distribution, whereas on the Trump side, you have regressive recognition, plus something closer to a quasi social-democratic interest in social security and social protection. And that is a big re-alignment of politics. Because in a New Deal era you had something like a progressive element on both redistribution and recognition. Now those things have split apart.
I feel that the way Hilary Clinton run her campaign, especially in later stages, was focused, almost exclusively, on a kind of moral condemnation of Trump’s individual badness: He says these things about women, about disabled people, about Muslims, he is a person of prejudice and of ignorance. She made the whole campaign about him, and in the process tarred the base of his supporters, calling them “a basket of deplorables”. I don’t believe that all, or even a majority of Trump’s supporters are racists and homophobes. They are very frustrated, they are not maybe politically well educated. US political culture is poor, there is not enough of a Left voice that gives people any sense that there are other possibilities. Given what was available to them, it’s quite understandable that they voted the way they did. Clinton thought that she could run a campaign exclusively on a highly moralized version of recognition. And, as it turned out, she got a lot of votes, but the way our system works, that wasn’t a winning strategy.
Do you think Donald Trump’s victory signals a shift of the electorate toward right-wing nationalism?
Like I said in the beginning, things are very much in flux now, this it is not a settled matter. It could go into a much more right-wing and nationalist direction, but it could also go into a more left direction. In the US we can see that in the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which came very close to getting the nomination away from Hilary Clinton. She had every bit of the bureaucracy, of the machinery of the Democratic Party behind her, she was the anointed successor to Obama; everybody thought this was a foregone conclusion. And this guy comes out of nowhere and suddenly inspires millions and millions of people. That to me reflects the spirit of Occupy, not just the young people in the squares, but the broad support beyond the squares that Occupy got, which was 60%-70% nationally according to the polls at the time.
This shows is that there is a body of sentiment in the country that at some level agrees with the Occupy language on the 1%. That was very powerful language, it rung a bell. People knew what that meant, and they felt very strongly that that was true and should be changed. Sanders’ version of that was to use the word “rigged”. It’s a “rigged” economy, a “rigged” political system. That was another way of saying that there is a deep structural unfairness in the society, something that really resonated.
Later, Trump copied this language from Sanders and started himself talking about the rigged system, adding the phrase that ‘no one could fix this better’ than he could, because he knows how it works from the inside. He talked about how the people who run the banks, the government and the big corporations are “killers”. This is an amazing way to talk about the corporate elite. It’s true, but no one says these things. Overall, I think it’s highly likely that Trump as president will end up disappointing many of the people who voted for him, and there will be another battle over this, this is not the end. This body of sentiment is inchoate, it’s not fully formed, and it can be articulated in a number of different ways.
You have written about how the emancipatory claims of the feminist, anti-racist or LGTB movements have been hijacked by neoliberalism and redefined in market terms. Can you talk more about this?
I am from the 1968 generation, and I participated in the New Left and in the movements that grew in a very immediate way out of the New Left, including early second wave feminism, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In that period, there was a kind of ethos in the atmosphere that everyone was anti-capitalist. And everyone understood that whatever the issues, whether it was foreign policy, or gender subordination, or racial oppression, they were structural issues that had to be addressed at the root. And the root had to do with capitalism. As the New Left faded, that atmosphere shifted and then what happened in the US is that the normal political culture re-asserted itself. The normal political culture being interest group pluralism, meritocratic individualism and the idea that individuals differ in their talents and some can go further than others. This is the norm, we have a culture of voluntarism that says that how you well do in life is of a matter of your will and how hard you are willing to work, to save money etc.
So this culture does not change, except in very special periods, almost revolutionary, or crisis periods. But in the normal periods, that is the mindset and every issue gets filtered through these assumptions. It takes an almost heroic effort against the grain, uphill, to challenge that and to develop and maintain a worldview that really insists on the deep structural roots and tries to relate specific experiences and injustices to the deep structural issues. It’s not surprising that in the US, under these conditions, the drift in every social movement over the last 30 or 40 years has been toward a form of liberalism. Liberal feminism, liberal anti-racism, liberal LGBT politics… These are about removing barriers that hold people from advancing. From advancing up the corporate ladder, even up the military ladder. One of the first LGBT claims, before marriage equality, was gays in the military. And of course these are just claims, but in many of these cases people are taking for granted that we live in a hierarchical society, and don’t challenge that hierarchy, but just seek to remove some barriers so that the talented Blacks, the talented women, the talented Muslims and gays and lesbians can also rise.
We call them social movements, but I don’t think they are social movements, I think now they are interest groups: they are not really in the streets very often, only occasionally. One exception would be the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which is new, and it is a real movement that potentially has a much more radical orientation and agenda. But I think that feminism has become normalized in the US.
Basically what has happened is that these movements, or interest groups, have succeeded in winning the battle for “right thinking”. People know that they are not supposed to say the kind of things that Donald Trump says. So we have on the one hand the ideological, cultural shift in values and you have a lot of the media reflecting that. In television shows, in Holywood films you often have feminist twists in a vulgar sense, or there are always Blacks in positions of power. That’s going on in one level, but the real situation of the mass of African-Americans or Latinos, or of women deteriorates. Under the new economy, the relocation of manufacturing jobs was an especially severe blow for African-Americans. So it’s not like their material situation is better, I would say it’s worse than before the civil rights movement. The living situation of everybody was worsened, except for the 10% say of people who are doing well.
So, the ideological victory of the so-called social movements is a quite complicated affair in itself. It’s obviously positive, but because it is perceived, rightly so to some degree, as being part and parcel of neoliberalization, openness to the world, cosmopolitanism and sophistication, it gets read by people who consider themselves the losers of globalization and neoliberalization, people suffering in the Rust Belt or other areas that are declining, as a insult, that they are being preached at, looked down on and neglected, while others are being favored.
Social reproduction work (taking care of children and the elderly, maintaining the household etc), is devalued (not paid/underpaid) and at the same time absolutely necessary for capitalism. You have identified this as a structural contradiction of capitalism that is becoming even more acute now. Do you think this issue can be solved within capitalism?
I would say first of all, that capitalism has shown a surprising capacity to re-invent itself in many forms and I don’t think we can exclude the possibility that it will do that again. But, through what form, and what new political alignments or other forces would create that, that’s a little unclear. During the New Deal/ social democratic era, there was a provisional solution, although it didn’t work for everybody. It was premised on exclusions of various kinds, but you could say for a significant number of working-class people in the wealthier countries of the capitalist world, there was a way of balancing paid work and unpaid social reproductive activity. So that was a provisional solution, at least for some.
If you think along those lines, and how can we do something like that, but in a way that overcomes the exclusions and injustices that were built into it, then you would have to think in terms of a global regime. I don’t mean a sort of world state, I mean something like what the EU is saying about harmonizing social policies, but not just within Europe, much more broadly. Because now, one of the ways that neoliberalism tries to deal with this problem is to import migrant women to do very low-wage, precarious and highly supervised intrusive domestic work for the professional managerial middle class and upper middle class. So it has to be something global, it cannot be premised on anything like a male breadwinner / female homemaker model, it has to include no-heterosexual families, it was to overcome the racial/ethnical divisions of labour that assign the dirtiest and least well-paid forms of care, like working in nursing homes to people of colour.
I think that is the best that capitalism could do and I don’t know if it can do it. But I think we could adopt an agnostic view. Meaning, this is what we need to have, we will keep an open mind, if capitalism can give it to us, so much the better, if not, too bad for capitalism. I think you don’t have to decide now how it’s going to be. You can push for this, and as movements grow and radicalize they will start having to think about what are the obstacles to this. Global finance is going to be one and there is also an ecological question that is very pressing, because one thing is clear: if you try to universalize something like the high-carbon footprint consumer’s lifestyle of the European and North American middle classes to the whole world, it would be completely ecologically unsustainable. One would have to think about how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and then again see whether there is a form of capitalism that could be invented. It doesn’t exist now, no one even knows exactly what it would look like. We’ll see. But in the meantime, we should also be thinking about non or post-capitalist possibilities too.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi