Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, by Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi

Kindle Location (Loc) 272: Chapters 1 and 2 ended up focusing largely on Nancy Fraser’s “expanded” view of capitalism as “an institutionalized social order” that harbors multiple crisis tendencies.

Loc: 312. Not since the interwar period have people in Western societies felt themselves so exposed to the instability and unpredictability of our economic and social order – a sense of exposure that was only magnified and compounded by the responses of their ostensibly democratic governments, which seemed to range from sheer helplessness to cold indifference. What is remarkable is how rapidly the critique of capitalism has come back into vogue.

Loc: 328. It reflects the pervasive sense that we are caught in the throes of a very deep crisis – a severe systemic crisis. What we face, in other words, is not just a set of discrete punctual problems, but a deep-structural dysfunction lodged at the very heart of our form of life. So even if people don’t know exactly what they mean by capitalism, the mere fact that they are using the word again is heartening. I read it as signaling a hunger for the sort of critical theory that discloses the deep-structural roots of a major systemic crisis.

Loc: 344.  The current interest in capitalism transcends the limited, partial approaches you’ve just mentioned. What drives it, as I said, is the widespread sense of deep and pervasive crisis – not just a sectoral crisis, but one that encompasses every major aspect of our social order. So the problem isn’t simply “economic” – it’s not “just” inequality, unemployment, or maldistribution, as serious as those things are. Nor is it even only the 1% versus the 99% – although that rhetoric inspired many people to start asking questions Loc: 349

Above and beyond the matter of how wealth is “distributed,” there is the problem of what counts as wealth in the first place and how that wealth is produced. Similarly, behind the matter of who gets how much for what sort of labor lies the deeper question of what counts as labor, how it is organized, and what its organization is now demanding from, and doing to, people. To my mind, this is what should be at stake when we talk about capitalism. Not only why some have more and others less, but also why so few people now have stable lives and a sense of well-being; why so many have to scramble for precarious work, altering the conditions of child-rearing, eldercare, household relations, and community bonds – in short, the entire organization of social reproduction. Deep questions arise, too, about the increasingly alarming impacts of our extractive relation to nature, which capitalism treats both as a “tap” for energy and raw materials and as a “sink” to absorb our waste.  Loc 355.

Nor, finally, should we forget political questions, about, for example, the hollowing out of democracy by market forces at two levels: capture of political parties and public institutions at the level of the territorial state; on the other hand, the usurpation of political decision-making power at the transnational level by global finance, a force that is unaccountable to any demos. All of this is central to what it means to talk about capitalism today. One implication is that our crisis is not only economic. It also encompasses care deficits, climate change, and de-democratization.

Loc: 367. Many people now suspect that it is no longer good enough to look only at these bad effects when it is likely that an entire form of life has become dysfunctional. And this means they are willing to look more deeply at the various social practices that this social formation comprises – not just inequality or ecological degradation or globalization, as you said, but the very practices that make up the system that generates these conflicts, right down to the way we understand things such as property, labor, production, exchange, markets, and so on.

Loc: 373.  Over the last several decades, we have seen a turn toward a “black box” view of the economy. This is certainly true of philosophical liberalism and other schools of thought that focus narrowly on questions of “distribution.” Take left-wing Rawlsians or socialists like G. A. Cohen: they take an otherwise radical and egalitarian approach to matters of distributive justice, but they tend to avoid talking about the economy itself.3 They talk about what comes out of the economic “black box” and how to distribute these outcomes, but they don’t talk about what’s going on inside it, how it works, and whether these goings-on are really necessary or desirable. But the trend isn’t confined to liberalism and theories of justice. Capitalism used to be a core problem for critical theory.

Loc: 381. For virtually all the great thinkers in this tradition – capitalism was central. But sometime in the mid- to late 1980s, it pretty much dropped out of the picture. What happened? Did we all just become so ideologically “one-dimensional” that even critical theorists lost sight of the sources of our unfreedom? That sounds rather crude as an explanation. I suspect there are reasons intrinsic to the theoretical development of our intellectual tradition that have led to the abandonment of the topic. In a sense, Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, with its controversial thesis about the “colonization of the lifeworld,” was the last attempt to ground critical theory in a large-scale social theory.4 It is certainly inspired by Marx, Lukács, and the intuitions of earlier critical theory in a way that can’t be said of some of his later disciples. Nevertheless, Habermas relies on systems-theoretic ideas about functional differentiation to such an extent that he in effect removes the economic sphere from the realm of criticism.

Loc: 403.  Most of those who think of themselves as critical theorists went on to do freestanding moral, political, or legal theory, with hardly anyone taking up large-scale social theory (the Research Group on Post-Growth Societies in Jena being a recent and welcome exception). The effect was to abandon the original idea of critical theory as an interdisciplinary project aimed at grasping society as a totality. No longer linking normative questions to the analysis of societal tendencies and to a diagnosis of the times, people simply stopped trying to understand capitalism as such. There were no more efforts to identify its deep structures and driving mechanisms, its defining tensions and contradictions, or its characteristic forms of conflict and emancipatory possibilities. Loc: 417

The overwhelming majority of critical theorists have shown little interest in social theory. And if we want to understand the relative absence of the critique of capitalism in recent years, we also need to factor in the spectacular rise of poststructuralist thought in the late twentieth century. In the US academy, at least, poststructuralism became the “official opposition” to liberal moral and political philosophy. And yet, despite their differences, these ostensible opponents shared something fundamental: both liberalism and poststructuralism were ways of evacuating the problematic of political economy, indeed of the social itself. It was a very powerful convergence – a one–two punch, if you like.

Loc: 433. Jaeggi: But perhaps there were good reasons to turn away from capitalism and the economy. Maybe this was something that needed to be done, even by left-thinkers and critical theorists. Older Marxist inspired theories tended to encourage an overly “economistic” way of seeing society, and we needed to gain some distance from that. So while capitalism dropped out of the picture, this also made room to explore a wide array of cultural issues, such as gender, race, sexuality, and identity. And critical study of these things in a way that did not subordinate them to economics was something we sorely needed. But I would say that it’s time to restore the balance. It’s not enough to avoid economism. We must also take care not to lose sight of the importance of the economic side of social life.

Loc: 441.  There have been real gains in addressing questions of misrecognition, status hierarchy, ecology, and sexuality. These were all matters that an orthodox, sclerotic, and reductively economistic paradigm pushed off the table. Recovering them and giving them a central place in critical theory represents an important achievement. This is why I’ve always insisted on a “both/and” approach – both class and status, redistribution and recognition. It is also why I’ve insisted that we cannot simply return to an older received critique of political economy, but must rather complicate, deepen, and enrich that critique by incorporating the insights of feminist thought, cultural theory and poststructuralism, postcolonial thought, and ecology.

Loc: 453. There’s a political-economic story that helps explain why people abandoned political economy and began to focus one-sidedly on issues of culture, identity, and discourse. Although those issues appear to be something other than political economy, they cannot actually be understood in abstraction from it. So this is not just a mistake; it’s also a clue about something going on in society.

Jaeggi: There’s an old quote by Horkheimer, in which he says, “Economism … does not consist in giving too much importance to the economy, but in giving it too narrow a scope.”9 In other words, we shouldn’t turn away from the economy, but rather we need to try to re-think economy and its role in society in a “wider” sense.

Loc: 479. My sense is we haven’t yet arrived at a conception that would be wide enough, capitalist society: which I called the shift “from redistribution to recognition.”12 Far from being an exercise in freestanding moral philosophy, this work was an early attempt to grasp an epochal historical mutation of capitalist society, from the “state-managed” variant of the postwar era to the “financialized” capitalism of the present. For me, in other words, “redistribution” was never meant as a euphemism or substitute for “capitalism.” It was, rather, my term for a grammar of political claims-making that gestured toward a structural aspect of capitalist society but pictured it ideologically as an economic “black box,” if you like, and which became a major focus of social struggle and crisis management in the state-managed regime. I was interested in disclosing how and why capitalist society generated this sort of economic black box of distribution, separated from the equally problematic cultural box of recognition.

Loc: 491. Today, capitalist society is the explicit foreground of my theorizing, the direct object of my critique. That’s partly because the character of financialized capitalism as a deeply crisis-ridden regime is much clearer to me now. But it’s also because, for the first time since the 1960s, I can see the palpable fragility of capitalism, which now manifests itself openly with visible cracks. This fragility spurs me to look at it in a head-on way – and to focus especially on its “crisis tendencies” and “contradictions.”

Loc: 504.  We need to disclose the structural grounds of multiple crisis tendencies in one and the same social totality: capitalist society. There are many traps here. Neither doubling down on received Marxian models nor simply jettisoning them altogether will suffice. We need somehow to create a new understanding of capitalism that integrates the insights of Marxism with those of newer paradigms, including feminism, ecology, and postcolonialism – while avoiding the respective blindspots of each. In any case, the sort of large-scale social theory I am developing now is centered on the problem of crisis.

Loc: 509.  No genre of critical theory has been so heavily criticized as “crisis theory.” That genre has been widely rejected, even dismissed, as inherently mechanistic, deterministic, teleological, functionalistic – you name it. And yet, we are living in a time that literally cries out for crisis critique. I would go further and say that we are living in the throes of an epochal crisis of capitalism, so we have an urgent need to reconstruct crisis theorizing today. This is the genre of large-scale social theory that I am pursuing now and that I want to discuss…

Loc: 526. Your work has always been great in reflecting the social struggles and movements taking place. But your orientation now seems to have undergone a change. It’s not as if you are now turning away from the struggle dimension – you’re certainly not – but you have begun to push beyond the “subjective” elements of struggle and languages of claims-making to the more “objective” dimensions of contradictions and crises, which turn more on the dynamics of systemic elements operating independently of whether or not people actually thematize them via struggle. So there are implications we should be aware of, as well as a host of new questions that come along with this kind of shift from one dimension to the other. I would be interested in how one would balance these two dimensions.

Loc: 532. One option… use the lens of present-day social struggles diagnostically to trace underlying contradictions. Another might involve looking, in a more foundational way, at the conditions of social integration and division as a basis for thinking about systemic contradictions – though theorizing at this kind of level is often a tricky proposition. Loc: 540

More recently, I have been influenced by ecological thought, especially the ecological critique of capitalism, which posits some real, seemingly objective limits to capitalist development, and which seeks to identify the contradictions and self-destabilizing tendencies of a social system that is consuming its own natural conditions of possibility. This kind of thinking did not play a major role in my earlier work, but it has come into focus for me in recent decades. The ecological paradigm understands capitalist crisis in a way that is as systemic and as deeply structural as the Marxian paradigm, almost as if the two crisis complexes were parallel. I’m not satisfied with the idea that they are parallel, however, and believe we need to understand their imbrication with one another – as well as with other, equally “objective” tendencies to political and social crisis. This is something we’ll talk about later, I’m sure.

Loc: 549.  I’m convinced we have to look both at the “real contradictions” or systemic crisis tendencies, on the one hand, and at the forms of conflict and struggle that develop in response to them, on the other hand. In some cases, the struggles are explicit and conscious “subjective” responses to the “objective” dimension. In other cases, they are symptomatic of it. And in still others, they may be something else entirely. In other words, the relation between the two levels, the “objective” and the “subjective,” is a problem. We cannot assume the perfect synchronization that Marx thought he had discerned between capitalism’s system crisis, on the one hand, and the sharpening class struggle between labor and capital, on the other, according to which the latter perfectly reflected or responded to the former. In the absence of any such auto-harmonization, we must treat the relationship between these two poles as an open question and a problem to be theorized.

Loc: 556.  an especially pressing question today, when we are facing an evident structural crisis, but (as yet anyway) no corresponding political conflict that adequately expresses the crisis in a way that could lead to an emancipatory resolution. So the relation between system crisis and social struggle must be a major focus of our conversation in the chapters that follow. Loc: 563

Nancy Fraser, “Marketization, Social Protection, Emancipation: Toward a Neo-Polanyian Conception of Capitalist Crisis,” in Business as Usual: The Roots of the Global Financial Meltdown, ed. Craig Calhoun and Georgi Derlugian (New York University Press, 2011), pp. 137–58

“Can Society Be Commodities All the Way Down? Post-Polanyian Reflections on Capitalist Crisis,” Economy and Society 43, no. 4 (2014): 541–58

Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (London: Verso, 2013).

Rahel Jaeggi, Critique of Forms of Life, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming), and “What (If Anything) Is Wrong with Capitalism? Dysfunctionality, Exploitation, and Alienation: Three Approaches to the Critique of Capitalism,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 54, Spindel Supplement (2016): 44–65.

Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72. Loc: 592

Rahel Jaeggi, “A Wide Concept of Economy: Economy as a Social Practice and the Critique of Capitalism,” in Critical Theory in Critical Times: Transforming the Political and Economic Order, ed. Penelope Deutscher and Cristina Lafont (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

Nancy Fraser, “Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late-Capitalist Political Culture”; Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, “A Genealogy of ‘Dependency’: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State”; and “After the Family Wage: Gender Equity and the Welfare State” – all (reprinted) in Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism (London: Verso, 2013).

Loc: 616. Might we not conclude that capitalist societies look so different from one another that there is no true common denominator? If this were the case, we face a real problem. If we cannot specify the core elements that make a social formation capitalist, how can we talk about a crisis of capitalism? Without those core elements, there would be no way to establish that the present crisis is really a crisis of capitalism and not a crisis of something else. The same holds for our resources to criticize capitalism: how can we claim that the instances of social suffering we want to address are actually related to capitalism, if we don’t even have a sufficiently clear and coherent concept of capitalism that allows us to identify its core elements?

Loc: 639.  Fraser: The historical point is important. I’m inclined to the view that, whatever else it is, capitalism is intrinsically historical. Far from being given all at once, its properties emerge over time. If that’s right, then we have to proceed cautiously, taking every proposed definition with a grain of salt and as subject to modification within capitalism’s unfolding trajectory. Features that appear central at the outset may decline in salience later, while characteristics that seem marginal or even absent at first could assume major importance later. As you just suggested, inter-capitalist competition was a driving mechanism of capitalist development in the nineteenth century, but it was increasingly superseded in the twentieth, at least in leading sectors of what was widely understood as “monopoly capitalism.”

Loc: 647. Governance regimes that embed and organize capitalism at every stage have been transformed again and again in the course of the last 300 years, from mercantilism to laissez-faire liberalism to state-led dirigisme to neoliberal globalization. These examples point to capitalism’s inherent historicity. What is at issue here are not simply different “varieties of capitalism,” which might exist side-by-side, but rather historical moments, which are linked to one another in a path-dependent sequence. Within this sequence, any given transformation is politically driven and, to be sure, traceable to struggles among proponents of different projects. But this sequence can also be reconstructed as a directional or dialectical process in which an earlier form runs up against difficulties or limits, which its successor overcomes or circumvents, until it too encounters an impasse and is superseded in turn.

Loc: 660.  Let’s begin by positing three defining features of capitalism: (1) private ownership of the means of production and the class division between owners and producers; (2) the institution of a free labor market; and (3) the dynamic of capital accumulation premised on an orientation toward the expansion of capital as opposed to consumption, coupled with an orientation toward making profit instead of satisfying needs.

Fraser: This is very close to Marx. By starting in this way, we’ll arrive at a conception of capitalism that will, at least at first sight, appear quite orthodox.

Loc: 670.  This class division supposes the break-up of prior social formations in which most people, however differently situated, had some access to means of subsistence and means of production – access to food, shelter, and clothing, and to tools, land, and work – without having to go through labor markets. Capitalism destroyed that condition, separating the vast majority from the means of subsistence and production and excluding them from what had been common social resources. It enclosed the commons, abrogating customary use rights and transforming shared resources into the private property of a small minority. As a result of this class division between owners and producers, the majority must now go through a very peculiar song and dance (the labor market) Loc: 675: …to be able to work and get what they need to continue living and raise their children. The important thing is just how bizarre, how “unnatural,” how historically anomalous and specific this is.

Jaeggi: Yes, and this leads us to the second point: capitalism depends on the existence of free labor markets. Capitalist societies, as we know them, have tended to abolish unfree labor of the sort found in feudal societies. They institutionalize free labor on the assumption that the workers are free and equal. This is the official version, at least, but it is contradicted in reality by capitalism’s coexistence for over two centuries with New World slavery. But this aside, the labor power of “free workers” is treated as a good that one party to a legal contract (the worker) owns and sells to the other party (the employer-capitalist).