Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A drama in three acts – Fortunes of Feminism

Fortunes of Feminism: from state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis, by Nancy Fraser, reviewed by Nina Power

October 1, 2013
5 min read

fortunesfThe past 30 years, it’s safe to say, have not exactly been kind to those who benefit from and defend the welfare state. Nor have these years witnessed the achievement of all of the aims of second-wave feminism, though images, or ‘strands’ as Nancy Fraser puts it, of its great ideas can be seen all around us. Politically, we are today confronted with a paradoxical scene: those who possess elaborate critiques of the state attempting nevertheless to defend the last vestiges of it.

The transition from ‘state-managed’ capitalism to the privatised, financialised, inhumane nightmare of today’s world is well traced, outlined and critically assessed in this collection of essays from 1985 to the present by Fraser, who is currently the Henry A and Louise Loeb professor of political and social science and department chair at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Reading Fortunes of Feminism, one is struck by how much has been lost, how much has been twisted by neoliberalism for its own ends, and how much ground there is to take back. Fraser’s careful, detailed essays tackle everything from the definition of critical theory (a tradition she aligns herself with, also described here as ‘large-scale social theory’) to feminist work on the state, work, recognition and redistribution; an excellent take-down (co-authored with Linda Gordon) of the use and abuse of the term ‘dependency’ in debates around welfare; and discussions of the ‘family wage’, globalisation and various critical readings of, among others, Lacan, Butler, Habermas and Polanyi.

Fraser’s essays are dominated, above all, by a commitment to social justice. But she is keenly aware that this is easier said than done, and all too often what looks like emancipation ends up being ‘harnessed to the engine of capital accumulation’. She concludes by asking, ‘Will the emancipatory struggles of the 21st century serve to advance the disembedding and deregulation of markets? Or will they serve to extend and democratise social protections and to make them more just?’

It is this large-scale critical suspicion that subtends all of Fraser’s antipathy towards easy answers and faddish analysis. A 1990 essay, ‘Against symbolicism’, turns its bemused gaze upon Lacanian feminism, proposing that language is better understood in relationship to its everyday usage, rather than allowing it to spiral out into the theoretical cosmos. Five years earlier, she carefully unpicks the holes in Habermas’s account of ‘late welfare-state capitalism’, pointing out that his description of public and private spheres neglects feminist work on reproduction and that he fails adequately to ‘theorise the systemic, money – and power-mediated – character of male dominance in the domestic sphere of the late-capitalist lifeworld’.

Fraser is acutely attuned to the spatiality of political debate, herself speaking often of axes, dimensions, hierarchies, structures, worlds, frames. Indeed, her critical theory can be said in some ways to be an attempt to understand the ways in which these images shape thought itself. In her introduction to the collection, she moves into another set of metaphors, this time theatrical. ‘From today’s vantage-point,’ she writes, ‘the history of second-wave feminism appears as a drama in three acts,’ moving from insurrection, to cultural politics to the open-ended state of affairs where feminism could yet democratise markets and return to its original ‘insurrectionary spirit’.

Fraser’s uncertainty over the future (or ‘fortunes’) of feminism is best captured in a 2008 essay ‘Feminism, capitalism and the cunning of history’. Here Fraser, like other long-term feminist writers around this time, such as Hester Eisenstein and Angela McRobbie, wonders whether an ‘uncanny double’ of feminism has unwittingly entered into a ‘dangerous liaison’ with neoliberalism. In other words, Fraser wonders, did the unravelling strands of second-wave feminism (identified as economic, cultural, political) feed ‘currents that legitimated the transition to a new form of capitalism: post-Fordist, transnational, neoliberal’?

With welfare states under attack, feminist critiques of ‘economism, androcentrism, etatism and Westphalianism took on a new valance’, suggests Fraser. Neoliberalism thus instrumentalised feminism. (Think too of the way in which ‘feminism’ was invoked by belligerent western governments in the name of ‘saving’ Afghani and Iraqi women.) How, then, to get a critical feminism back? Fraser proposes, finally, a new alliance of ‘emancipation with social protection’, where freedom and solidarity would stand side by side.

Fraser’s collection provides two things simultaneously. First, a critical history of debates that, in some cases, it would be nice to be in a position to go back to (a welfare state that could be the subject of critique, most especially). And second, a clear set of theoretical and political jolts into a clearer thinking through of major questions from a strong feminist perspective: work, family, society, and the future of all of these things. While Fraser’s tone might occasionally veer into a kind of sensible-sounding dismissal of more utopian and abstract speculative thought, it could well be argued that this is exactly what we need right now.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum