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Feminism and the Post-Neoliberal Future by Nancy Fraser

Nancy Fraser 2 March 2016

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In the run-up to International Women's Day on 8th March, we present the final part of a 3-part extract from Nancy Fraser's Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. In the concluding part, Fraser considers the prospects for feminism in the context of the decline of neoliberalism and certain affinities and contradictions between feminism and neoliberalism. 

You can read parts one and two here and here
Tracing the feminist movement’s evolution since the 1970s, Fraser's book anticipates a new—radical and egalitarian—phase of feminist thought and action: a reinvigorated feminist radicalism able to address the global economic crisis.

III. An Open Future?

Today, however, this capitalism is itself at a critical crossroads. Certainly, the global financial crisis and the decidedly post-neoliberal response to it by leading states—all Keynesians now—mark the beginning of neoliberalism’s end as an economic regime. The election of Barack Obama may signal the decisive repudiation, even in the belly of the beast, of neoliberalism as a political project. We may be seeing the early stirrings of a new wave of mobilization aimed at articulating an alternative. Perhaps, accordingly, we stand poised at the brink of yet another ‘great transformation’, as massive and profound as the one I have just described.

If so, then the shape of the successor society will be the object of intense contestation in the coming period. And feminism will feature importantly in such contestation—at two different levels: first, as the social movement whose fortunes I have traced here, which will seek to ensure that the successor regime institutionalizes a commitment to gender justice. But also, second, as a general discursive construct which feminists in the first sense no longer own and do not control—an empty signifier of the good (akin, perhaps, to ‘democracy’), which can and will be invoked to legitimate a variety of different scenarios, not all of which promote gender justice. An offspring of feminism in the first, social-movement sense, this second, discursive sense of ‘feminism’ has gone rogue. As the discourse becomes independent of the movement, the latter is increasingly confronted with a strange shadowy version of itself, an uncanny double that it can neither simply embrace nor wholly disavow. 

In this essay, I have mapped the disconcerting dance of these two feminisms in the shift from state-organized capitalism to neoliberalism. What should we conclude from it? Certainly not that second-wave feminism has failed simpliciter, nor that it is to blame for the triumph of neoliberalism. Surely not that feminist ideals are inherently problematic; nor that they are always already doomed to be resignified for capitalist purposes. I conclude, rather, that we for whom feminism is above all a movement for gender justice need to become more historically self-aware as we operate on a terrain that is also populated by our uncanny double.

To that end, let us return to the question: what, if anything, explains our ‘dangerous liaison’ with neoliberalism? Are we the victims of an unfortunate coincidence, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and so fell prey to that most opportunistic of seducers, a capitalism so indiscriminate that it would instrumentalize any perspective whatever, even one inherently foreign to it? Or is there, as I suggested earlier, some subterranean elective affinity between feminism and neoliberalism? If any such affinity does exist, it lies in the critique of traditional authority. Such authority is a longstanding target of feminist activism, which has sought at least since Mary Wollstonecraft to emancipate women from personalized subjection to men, be they fathers, brothers, priests, elders or husbands. But traditional authority also appears in some periods as an obstacle to capitalist expansion, part of the surrounding social substance in which markets have historically been embedded and which has served to confine economic rationality within a limited sphere. In the current moment, these two critiques of traditional authority, the one feminist, the other neoliberal, appear to converge.

Where feminism and neoliberalism diverge, in contrast, is over post-traditional forms of gender subordination—constraints on women’s lives that do not take the form of personalized subjection, but arise from structural or systemic processes in which the actions of many people are abstractly or impersonally mediated. A paradigm case is what Susan Okin has characterized as ‘a cycle of socially caused and distinctly asymmetric vulnerability by marriage’, in which women’s traditional responsibility for child-rearing helps shape labour markets that disadvantage women, resulting in unequal power in the economic market-place, which in turn reinforces, and exacerbates, unequal power in the family. Such market-mediated processes of subordination are the very lifeblood of neoliberal capitalism. Today, accordingly, they should become a major focus of feminist critique, as we seek to distinguish ourselves from, and to avoid resignification by, neoliberalism. The point, of course, is not to drop the struggle against traditional male authority, which remains a necessary moment of feminist critique. It is, rather, to disrupt the easy passage from such critique to its neoliberal double—above all by reconnecting struggles against personalized subjection to the critique of a capitalist system which, while promising liberation, actually replaces one mode of domination by another.

In the hope of advancing this agenda, I would like to conclude by revisiting one last time my four foci of feminist critique:

Post-neoliberal anti-economism. The possible shift away from neoliberalism offers the opportunity to reactivate the emancipatory promise of second-wave feminism. Adopting a fully three-dimensional account of injustice, we might now integrate in a more balanced way the dimensions of redistribution, recognition and representation that splintered in the previous era. Grounding those indispensable aspects of feminist critique in a robust, updated sense of the social totality, we should reconnect feminist critique to the critique of capitalism—and thereby re-position feminism squarely on the Left.

Post-neoliberal anti-androcentrism. Likewise, the possible shift to a post-neoliberal society offers the chance to break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism. Reclaiming our critique of androcentrism, feminists might militate for a form of life that decentres waged work and valorizes uncommodified activities, including carework. Now performed largely by women, such activities should become valued components of a good life for everyone.

Post-neoliberal anti-étatism. The crisis of neoliberalism also offers the chance to break the link between our critique of étatism and marketization. Reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy, feminists might militate now for a new organization of political power, one that subordinates bureaucratic managerialism to citizen empowerment. The point, however, is not to dissipate but to strengthen public power. Thus, the participatory democracy we seek today is one that uses politics to tame markets and to steer society in the interest of justice.

Post-neoliberal anti-Westphalianism. Finally, the crisis of neoliberalism offers the chance to resolve, in a productive way, our longstanding ambivalence about the Westphalian frame. Given capital’s transnational reach, the public capacities needed today cannot be lodged solely in the territorial state. Here, accordingly, the task is to break the exclusive identification of democracy with the bounded political community. Joining other progressive forces, feminists might militate for a new, post-Westphalian political order—a multi-scalar order that is democratic at every level. Combining subsidiarity with participation, the new constellation of democratic powers should be capable of redressing injustices in every dimension, along every axis and on every scale, including trans-border injustices.

I am suggesting, then, that this is a moment in which feminists should think big. Having watched the neoliberal onslaught instrumentalize our best ideas, we have an opening now in which to reclaim them. In seizing this moment, we might just bend the arc of the impending transformation in the direction of justice—and not only with respect to gender.

- Read parts one and two of this extract from Fortunes of Feminism
- Read more: Staff picks: Feminist books for International Women’s Day

Filed under: feminism