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Nancy Fraser proposes a re-radicalisation of feminism

Christina Chalmers15 October 2013

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Chiming with a host of other voices that have come to re-propose feminist ideas in the recent period, Nancy Fraser critiqued certain new forms of feminism in a new article in The Guardian this week. She is especially suspicious of some ends that feminism has come to serve in their newer neo-liberal, bourgeois incarnations – which have morphed the original radical intentions of second-wave feminists, those who originally proposed the ideas which have now become dogmas touted by official ideologues. The demand for equality in the boardroom – more female bosses and entrepreneurs – for example, is one target of her critique. 

In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women's liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to "lean in". A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised "care" and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy. ... What lies behind this shift is a sea-change in the character of capitalism. The state-managed capitalism of the postwar era has given way to a new form of capitalism – "disorganised", globalising, neoliberal. Second-wave feminism emerged as a critique of the first but has become the handmaiden of the second.

With capitalism’s dynamic power to incorporate and neutralize formerly radical potentials, it has shown itself capable of proposing a type of capitalist feminism.

Her theory is that there were two different potentials in second-wave feminism, two different visions to which feminism’s early elaboration of its demands and desires could be grafted:

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the movement for women's liberation pointed simultaneously to two different possible futures. In a first scenario, it prefigured a world in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity; in a second, it promised a new form of liberalism, able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, increased choice, and meritocratic advancement.

Fraser believes that the second set of values would later come to insidiously rephrase feminism as an argument for merely liberal ideals: these formulations become totally divested of any real social content, radical direction, or link to an analysis based on a critique of existing social relations.

Fraser outlines three key ideas which once possessed a liberatory potential, but now have a different lustre as tools in the arsenal of neo-liberal ideology. She argues that these have come to serve the interests of capital more than the interests of women themselves. These are: feminism’s critique of the ‘family wage’; its critique of narrow or deterministic ‘class analysis’; and its critique of ‘welfare state paternalism’.

Second-wave feminists justly criticised the idea of the ‘family wage’, the ideal in which the male of every household was its breadwinner and the female remained outside of waged employment. Increasing entry of women into the workforce on a large scale had an emancipatory quality, but was later used in order to increase exploitation. Now, both sexes within family structures are expected to work, and there has been no concomitant increase in the house’s overall income. Women’s employment has meant that women are exploited both in the workplace and at home, expected to shoulder a double burden.

Never mind that the reality that 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 poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households. Neoliberalism turns a sow's ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment. Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women's emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.

Similarly, feminism’s ‘politicising of the personal’, which was initially a necessary critique of the narrow and blinkered interests of dominant left groups in ‘the economic struggle’, was later to become a myopic interest in purely cultural matters and the question of identity at the expense of a unified analysis:

The result should have been to expand the struggle for justice to encompass both culture and economics. But the actual result was a one-sided focus on "gender identity" at the expense of bread and butter issues. Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality. In effect, we absolutised the critique of cultural sexism at precisely the moment when circumstances required redoubled attention to the critique of political economy.

Fraser argues that it is neither necessary to see economic and trade union struggles as the only component in struggle, nor to efface their importance in favour of a solely ‘cultural’ resistance to ideals of woman under patriarchy.

Fraser’s criticisms are echoed in her idea that feminists’ earlier attempts to establish networks of mutual support and care outside of ‘welfare state paternalism’ have been co-opted by neo-liberal agendas.


Undeniably progressive in the era of state-organised capitalism, that critique has since converged with neoliberalism's war on "the nanny state" and its more recent cynical embrace of NGOs. … In this case too, then, a feminist idea has been recuperated by neoliberalism. A perspective aimed originally at democratising state power in order to empower citizens is now used to legitimise marketisation and state retrenchment.

She notes, then, that strategies of recuperation have allowed the divergent trends in feminism to be neatly resolved, the memory of feminism’s radical past traditions suppressed in favour of anti-radical dogmas: ‘In all these cases, feminism's ambivalence has been resolved in favour of (neo)liberal individualism.’

But in new resurgences in feminist attention, she sees hope: ‘the other, solidaristic scenario may still be alive.’ She proposes ‘reconnecting the dream of women's liberation with the vision of a solidary society’; welding the feminist struggle firmly to wider social struggles for radical change.

She does not claim, however, that the new generation of feminists should jettison the three mentioned criticisms. ‘Feminists need to break off our dangerous liaison with neoliberalism and reclaim our three "contributions" for our own ends,’ she argues. New feminists must re-orient these towards radicalism. How can this be done? Fraser does not suggest specific tactics, leaving the door open for rethinking, but she does suggest the general direction to be taken:

First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including – but not only – carework. Second, we might disrupt the passage from our critique of economism to identity politics by integrating the struggle to transform a status order premised on masculinist cultural values with the struggle for economic justice. Finally, we might sever the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice.

Fraser removes the ground both from recuperable and recuperated feminisms, and from the neo-liberal ideologies that sustain and feed them. She recapitulates the potential for a new agon between different conceptions of feminism.

This echoes the argument of her recent book, The Fortunes of Feminism, which gives an account of the history of feminism from the 1970s and calls for a revitalized feminism on radical and egalitarian lines. Here is an edited extract of the book's introduction below:

When second-wave feminism first erupted on the world stage, the advanced capitalist states of Western Europe and North America were still enjoying the unprecedented wave of prosperity that followed World War II. Utilizing new tools of Keynesian economic steering, they had apparently learned to counteract business downturns and to guide national economic development so as to secure near full employment for men. Incorporating once unruly labor movements, the advanced capitalist countries had built more or less extensive welfare states and institutionalized national cross-class solidarity. To be sure, this historic class compromise rested on a series of gender and racial- ethnic exclusions, not to mention external neocolonial exploitation. But those potential fault lines tended to remain latent in a social- democratic imaginary that foregrounded class redistribution. The result was a prosperous North Atlantic belt of mass-consumption societies, which had apparently tamed social conflict.

In the 1960s, however, the relative calm of this “Golden Age of capitalism” was suddenly shattered. In an extraordinary international explosion, radical youth took to the streets—at first to oppose the Vietnam War and racial segregation in the US. Soon they began to question core features of capitalist modernity that social democracy had heretofore naturalized: materialism, consumerism, and “the achievement ethic”; bureaucracy, corporate culture, and “social control”; sexual repression, sexism, and heteronormativity. Breaking through the normalized political routines of the previous era, new social actors formed new social movements, with second-wave feminism among the most visionary.

Along with their comrades in other movements, the feminists of this era recast the radical imaginary. Transgressing a political culture that had privileged actors who cast themselves as nationally bounded and politically tamed classes, they challenged the gender exclusions of social democracy. Problematizing welfare paternalism and the bourgeois family, they exposed the deep androcentrism of capitalist society. Politicizing “the personal,” they expanded the boundaries of contestation beyond socioeconomic distribution—to include housework, sexuality, and reproduction.

In fact, the initial wave of postwar feminism had an ambivalent relationship to social democracy. On the one hand, much of the early second wave rejected the latter’s étatism and its tendency to marginalize class and social injustices other than “maldistribution.” On the other hand, many feminists presupposed key features of the socialist imaginary as a basis for more radical designs. Taking for granted the welfare state’s solidaristic ethos and prosperity-securing steering capacities, they too were committed to taming markets and promoting equality. Acting from a critique that was at once radical and immanent, early second-wave feminists sought less to dismantle the welfare state than to transform it into a force that could help to over- come male domination.

By the 1980s, however, history seemed to have bypassed that political project. A decade of conservative rule in much of Western Europe and North America, capped by the fall of Communism in the East, miracu- lously breathed new life into free-market ideologies previously given up for dead. Rescued from the historical dustbin, “neoliberalism” authorized a sustained assault on the very idea of egalitarian redistribution. The effect, amplified by accelerating globalization, was to cast doubt on the legitimacy and viability of the use of public power to tame market forces. With social democracy on the defensive, efforts to broaden and deepen its promise naturally fell by the wayside. Feminist movements that had earlier taken the welfare state as their point of departure, seeking to extend its egalitarian ethos from class to gender, now found the ground cut out from under their feet. No longer able to assume a social-democratic base-line for radicalization, they gravitated to newer grammars of political claims-making, more attuned to the “post-socialist” zeitgeist.

Enter the politics of recognition. If the initial thrust of postwar feminism was to “engender” the socialist imaginary, the later tendency was to redefine gender justice as a project aimed at “recognizing difference.” “Recognition,” accordingly, became the chief grammar of feminist claims-making at the fin de siècle. A venerable category of Hegelian philosophy, resuscitated by political theorists, this notion captured the distinctive character of “post-socialist” struggles, which often took the form of identity politics, aimed more at valorizing cultural difference than at promoting economic equality. Whether the question was care work, sexual violence, or gender disparities in political representation, feminists increasingly resorted to the grammar of recognition to press their claims. Unable to transform the deep gender structures of the capitalist economy, they preferred to target harms rooted in androcentric patterns of cultural value or status hierarchies. The result was a major shift in the feminist imaginary: whereas the previous generation had sought to remake political economy, this one focused more on transforming culture.

The results were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the new feminist struggles for recognition continued the earlier project of expanding the political agenda beyond the confines of class redistribution; in prin- ciple they served to broaden, and to struggles for gender equality. But that assumption fell prey to the larger zeitgeist. In the fin de siècle context, the turn to recognition dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social egalitarianism. The result was a tragic historical irony. Instead of arriving at a broader, richer paradigm that could encompass both redistribution and recognition, feminists effec- tively traded one truncated paradigm for another—a truncated economism for a truncated culturalism.

Today, however, perspectives centered on recognition alone lack all credibility. In the context of escalating capitalist crisis, the critique of political economy is regaining its central place in theory and practice. No serious social movement, least of all feminism, can ignore the evisceration of democracy and the assault on social reproduction now being waged by finance capital…. How might emancipatory struggles serve to secure democratic legitimacy and to expand and equalize political influence in a time when the powers that govern our lives increasingly overrun the borders of territorial states? How might feminist movements foster equal participation transnationally, across entrenched power asymmetries and divergent worldviews? Struggling simultaneously on three fronts—call them redistribution, recognition, and representation—the feminism of Act Three must join with other anti-capitalist forces, even while exposing their continued failure to absorb the insights of decades of feminist activism.