[lbo-talk] Nancy Fraser

David Green davegreen84 at yahoo.com
Wed Jan 25 21:29:31 PST 2017

I enjoyed Doug's extensive recent interview with Nancy Fraser, who discussed current aspects of feminism as "progressive neoliberalism," and in relation to Trump. Doug alluded to his dissatisfaction with her Polanyian (classless) framework, which I addressed after a talk she gave in 2009: Last night at Levis Faculty Center, renowned political/feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser offered an update of Karl Polanyi's famous and important work, The Great Transformation. Polanyi's book (1944)described the relationship between marketization and social protections (relationships, solidarity) subsequent to the advent of capitalism, focusing on England before and during the Industrial Revolution. To these two fundamental sociological concepts, Fraser adds that of "emancipation."

Fraser is of course concerned about neoliberalism, but also studiously and pointedly avoids "economism," or economic determinism (of course, identified with Marxism). She is also concerned that the promotion and revitalization of "social protections" will promote reaction--especially in relation to the rights of women, and perhaps other newly-liberated groups. She argues that by bringing the notion of "emancipation" into this equation, we can better understand the ups and downs of capitalism and the welfare state, while of course avoiding things like fascism and, presumably, teapartyism.

Fraser's argument is quite abstract, but to me clear. We now have a three-legged stool of individual rights and economic/social institutions, in which each leg is conveniently and elegantly used to critique and modify the excesses and potentials of the other two. It promotes a kind of positive, progressive, controlled but dynamic equilibrium, presumably with the help of philospher kings--and I don't say that disparigingly, in and of itself.

Nevertheless, my concerns have, as usual, to do with Fraser's conventional rejection of "economism," which softens and compromises her critique of neoliberalism; and her implicit promotion of "identity politics" under the guise of emancipation, which she does not assertively define in any other context. I don't find any of this very satisfying as a political program, even aside from its academic nature.

Fraser began her talk with a veiled reference to current events in the Middle East, saying that for the first time in 20 years, we can begin to think in global and fundamental terms about political transformation. She claims that for the past two decades (that is, since the fall of the Soviet Union), various academic approaches have been fragmented and limited in scope. Maybe that's true, especially in academia, but why? For some, the answer obviously lies with the fashions of postmodernism and identity politics.

Fraser claims that she is at the forefront of a more fundamental and thoroughgoing approach to social transformation, now urgent because of neoliberalism and the Middle East, and that her critique of Polanyi couldn't be more timely. Perhaps so, but I'm not sure it's the right critique. It's not fair to criticize academics for doing what they're supposed to do, which is to conceputalize and theorize. But ultimately, such work must be relevant and useful in relation to political behavior. With all due respect to Fraser's careful and serious work, for me it doesn't resonate as revealing our predicament in necessarily dire and urgent terms, or in providing a sound and inspiring basis for political strategy. David Green

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list