Second-Wave Feminism and the ‘New Spirit of Capitalism’ by Nancy Fraser

In the lead-up to International Women's Day on 8th March, we share the second part of a 3-part extract from Nancy Fraser's Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. In this part, she examines the path of second-wave feminism during the rise of neoliberalism and the decline of the post-war settlement. You can read part one hereTracing the feminist movement’s evolution since the 1970s, Fraser anticipates a new—radical and egalitarian—phase of feminist thought and action: a reinvigorated feminist radicalism able to address the global economic crisis.

II. Feminism and the 'New Spirit of Capitalism'

As it turned out, that project remained largely stillborn, a casualty of deeper historical forces, which were not well understood at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the rise of second-wave feminism coincided with a historical shift in the character of capitalism, from the state-organized variant just discussed to neoliberalism. Reversing the previous formula, which sought to ‘use politics to tame markets’, proponents of this new form of capitalism proposed to use markets to tame politics. Dismantling key elements of the Bretton Woods framework, they eliminated the capital controls that had enabled Keynesian steering of national economies. In place of dirigisme, they promoted privatization and deregulation; in place of public provision and social citizenship, ‘trickle-down’ and ‘personal responsibility’; in place of the welfare and developmental states, the lean, mean ‘competition state’. Road-tested in Latin America, this approach served to guide much of the transition to capitalism in East/Central Europe. Although publicly championed by Thatcher and Reagan, it was applied only gradually and unevenly in the First World. In the Third, by contrast, neoliberalization was imposed at the gunpoint of debt, as an enforced programme of ‘structural adjustment’ which overturned all the central tenets of developmentalism and compelled post-colonial states to divest their assets, open their markets and slash social spending.

Interestingly, second-wave feminism thrived in these new conditions. What had begun as a radical countercultural movement was now en route to becoming a broad-based mass social phenomenon. Attracting adherents of every class, ethnicity, nationality and political ideology, feminist ideas found their way into every nook and cranny of social life and transformed the self-understandings of all whom they touched. The effect was not only vastly to expand the ranks of activists but also to reshape commonsense views of family, work and dignity.

Was it mere coincidence that second-wave feminism and neoliberalism prospered in tandem? Or was there some perverse, subterranean elective affinity between them? That second possibility is heretical, to be sure, but we fail to investigate it at our peril. Certainly, the rise of neoliberalism dramatically changed the terrain on which second-wave feminism operated. The effect, I shall argue here, was to resignify feminist ideals.[5] Aspirations that had a clear emancipatory thrust in the context of state-organized capitalism assumed a far more ambiguous meaning in the neoliberal era. With welfare and developmental states under attack from free-marketeers, feminist critiques of economism, androcentrism, étatism and Westphalianism took on a new valence. Let me clarify this dynamic of resignification by revisiting those four foci of feminist critique.

Feminist anti-economism resignified. Neoliberalism’s rise coincided with a major alteration in the political culture of capitalist societies. In this period, claims for justice were increasingly couched as claims for the recognition of identity and difference.[6] With this shift ‘from redistribution to recognition’ came powerful pressures to transform second-wave feminism into a variant of identity politics. A progressive variant, to be sure, but one that tended nevertheless to overextend the critique of culture, while downplaying the critique of political economy. In practice, the tendency was to subordinate social-economic struggles to struggles for recognition, while in the academy, feminist cultural theory began to eclipse feminist social theory. What had begun as a needed corrective to economism devolved in time into an equally one-sided culturalism. Thus, instead of arriving at a broader, richer paradigm that could encompass both redistribution and recognition, second-wave feminists effectively traded one truncated paradigm for another.

The timing, moreover, could not have been worse. The turn to recognition dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social egalitarianism. Thus, feminists absolutized the critique of culture at precisely the moment when circumstances required redoubled attention to the critique of political economy. As the critique splintered, moreover, the cultural strand became decoupled not only from the economic strand, but also from the critique of capitalism that had previously integrated them. Unmoored from the critique of capitalism and made available for alternative articulations, these strands could be drawn into what Hester Eisenstein has called ‘a dangerous liaison’ with neoliberalism.

Feminist anti-androcentrism resignified. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before neoliberalism resignified the feminist critique of androcentrism. To explain how, I propose to adapt an argument made by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello. In their important book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, they contend that capitalism periodically remakes itself in moments of historical rupture, in part by recuperating strands of critique directed against it.[8] In such moments, elements of anti-capitalist critique are resignified to legitimate an emergent new form of capitalism, which thereby becomes endowed with the higher, moral significance needed to motivate new generations to shoulder the inherently meaningless work of endless accumulation. For Boltanski and Chiapello, the new ‘spirit’ that has served to legitimate the flexible neoliberal capitalism of our time was fashioned from the New Left’s ‘artistic’ critique of state-organized capitalism, which denounced the grey conformism of corporate culture. It was in the accents of May 68, they claim, that neoliberal management theorists propounded a new ‘connexionist’, ‘project’ capitalism, in which rigid organizational hierarchies would give way to horizontal teams and flexible networks, thereby liberating individual creativity. The result was a new romance of capitalism with real-world effects—a romance that enveloped the tech start-ups of Silicon Valley and that today finds its purest expression in the ethos of Google.

Boltanski and Chiapello’s argument is original and profound. Yet, because it is gender-blind, it fails to grasp the full character of the spirit of neoliberal capitalism. To be sure, that spirit includes a masculinist romance of the free, unencumbered, self-fashioning individual, which they aptly describe. But neoliberal capitalism has as much to do with Walmart, maquiladoras and microcredit as with Silicon Valley and Google. And its indispensable workers are disproportionately women, not only young single women, but also married women and women with children; not only racialized women, but women of virtually all nationalities and ethnicities. As such, women have poured into labour markets around the globe; the effect has been to undercut once and for all state-organized capitalism’s ideal of the family wage. In ‘disorganized’ neoliberal capitalism, that ideal has been replaced by the norm of the two-earner family. Never mind that the reality which underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift—now often a triple or quadruple shift—and a rise in female-headed households. Disorganized capitalism turns a sow’s ear into a silk purse by elaborating a new romance of female advancement and gender justice.

Disturbing as it may sound, I am suggesting that second-wave feminism has unwittingly provided a key ingredient of the new spirit of neoliberalism. Our critique of the family wage now supplies a good part of the romance that invests flexible capitalism with a higher meaning and a moral point. Endowing their daily struggles with an ethical meaning, the feminist romance attracts women at both ends of the social spectrum: at one end, the female cadres of the professional middle classes, determined to crack the glass ceiling; at the other end, the female temps, part-timers, low-wage service employees, domestics, sex workers, migrants, EPZ workers and microcredit borrowers, seeking not only income and material security, but also dignity, self-betterment and liberation from traditional authority. At both ends, the dream of women’s emancipation is harnessed to the engine of capitalist accumulation. Thus, second-wave feminism’s critique of the family wage has enjoyed a perverse afterlife. Once the centrepiece of a radical analysis of capitalism’s androcentrism, it serves today to intensify capitalism’s valorization of waged labour.

Feminist anti-étatism resignified. Neoliberalism has also resignified the anti-étatism of the previous period, making it grist for schemes aimed at reducing state action tout court. In the new climate, it seemed but a short step from second-wave feminism’s critique of welfare-state paternalism to Thatcher’s critique of the nanny state. That was certainly the experience in the United States, where feminists watched helplessly as Bill Clinton triangulated their nuanced critique of a sexist and stigmatizing system of poor relief into a plan to ‘end welfare as we know it’, which abolished the Federal entitlement to income support. In the postcolonies, meanwhile, the critique of the developmental state’s androcentrism morphed into enthusiasm for NGOs, which emerged everywhere to fill the space vacated by shrinking states. Certainly, the best of these organizations provided urgently needed material aid to populations bereft of public services. Yet the effect was often to depoliticize local groups and to skew their agendas in directions favoured by First-World funders. By its very stop-gap nature, moreover, NGOaction did little to challenge the receding tide of public provision or to build political support for responsive state action.

The explosion of microcredit illustrates the dilemma. Counter-posing feminist values of empowerment and participation from below to the passivity-inducing red tape of top-down étatism, the architects of these projects have crafted an innovative synthesis of individual self-help and community networking, NGOoversight and market mechanisms—all aimed at combating women’s poverty and gender subjection. The results so far include an impressive record of loan repayments and anecdotal evidence of lives transformed. What has been concealed, however, in the feminist hoopla surrounding these projects, is a disturbing coincidence: microcredit has burgeoned just as states have abandoned macrostructural efforts to fight poverty, efforts that small-scale lending cannot possibly replace. In this case too, the feminist critique of bureaucratic paternalism has been recuperated by neoliberalism. A perspective aimed originally at transforming state power into a vehicle of citizen empowerment and social justice is now used to legitimate marketization and state retrenchment.

Feminist contra and pro Westphalianism resignified. Finally, neo-liberalism altered for better and for worse second-wave feminism’s ambivalent relation to the Westphalian frame. In the new context of ‘globalization’, it no longer goes without saying that the bounded territorial state is the sole legitimate container for obligations of, and struggles for, justice. Feminists have joined environmentalists, human-rights activists and critics of the WTO in challenging that view. Mobilizing post-Westphalian intuitions that had remained impracticable in state-organized capitalism, they have targeted trans-border injustices that had been marginalized or neglected in the previous era. Utilizing new communication technologies to establish transnational networks, feminists have pioneered innovative strategies such as the ‘boomerang effect’, which mobilizes global public opinion to spotlight local abuses and to shame the states that condone them. The result was a promising new form of feminist activism—transnational, multi-scalar, post-Westphalian.

But the transnational turn brought difficulties too. Often stymied at the level of the state, many feminists directed their energies to the ‘international’ arena, especially to a succession of UN-related conferences, from Nairobi to Vienna to Beijing and beyond. Building a presence in ‘global civil society’ from which to engage new regimes of global governance, they became entangled in some of the problems I have already noted. For example, campaigns for women’s human rights focused overwhelmingly on issues of violence and reproduction, as opposed, for example, to poverty. Ratifying the Cold War split between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social and economic rights, on the other, these efforts, too, have privileged recognition over redistribution. In addition, these campaigns intensified the NGO-ification of feminist politics, widening the gap between professionals and local groups, while according disproportionate voice to English-speaking elites. Analogous dynamics have been operating in the feminist engagement with the policy apparatus of the European Union—especially given the absence of genuinely transnational, Europe-wide women’s movements. Thus, the feminist critique of Westphalianism has proved ambivalent in the era of neoliberalism. What began as a salutary attempt to expand the scope of justice beyond the nation-state has ended up dovetailing in some respects with the administrative needs of a new form of capitalism.

In general, then, the fate of feminism in the neoliberal era presents a paradox. On the one hand, the relatively small countercultural movement of the previous period has expanded exponentially, successfully disseminating its ideas across the globe. On the other, feminist ideas have undergone a subtle shift in valence in the altered context. Unambiguously emancipatory in the era of state-organized capitalism, critiques of economism, androcentrism, étatism and Westphalianism now appear fraught with ambiguity, susceptible to serving the legitimation needs of a new form of capitalism. After all, this capitalism would much prefer to confront claims for recognition over claims for redistribution, as it builds a new regime of accumulation on the cornerstone of women’s waged labour, and seeks to disembed markets from social regulation in order to operate all the more freely on a global scale.

Part three of this extract from Fortunes of Feminism will be published later this week. You can read part one here.