The radical philosopher mapping the crises of capitalism

Nancy Fraser

Nancy Fraser. Mark Riechers/Midjourney(TTBOOK)

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The emerging story of our time is a tale of overlapping crises: climate change, the pandemic, economic upheaval, war, racial violence and more. Philosopher Nancy Fraser calls it "a perfect storm of the irrationality and injustice of capitalism." It's a moment she's been predicting for a long time — even waiting for.

"Moments of deep and acute crisis which are visible to many people, crises which are lived as terrible impasses, where people feel something's got to give and we can't go on like this — when that sense becomes widespread — then you have an acceleration of social learning. You also have an acceleration of the ugliest, nastiest stuff, too," Fraser told "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." "But it's a time when people are open to out-of-the-box thinking, to things they never would have considered before."

Fraser is one of the world's preeminent critical theorists, a Marxist feminist philosopher at the New School for Social Research. Over four decades, she has built a sweeping theory of capitalism, extending Marx and Engels' ideas to incorporate feminism, racial justice, the environment and now the pandemic. Her work is widely known in Europe, where she's achieved intellectual rock star status. In the United States, she's a major figure on the academic Left, in the pages of Jacobin Magazine and The New Left Review, and she's recently begun writing for a wider audience, with books like "Feminism for the 99%" and "Cannibal Capitalism – How Our System is Devouring Democracy, Care and the Planet and What We Can Do About It.

Talking with Nancy Fraser is oddly heartening. If 40 years of studying capitalism has taught her anything, it's the value of a good crisis. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Nancy Fraser: Things get interesting in these crisis situations. That's when we got the New Deal. You could never have gotten that incrementally. It took a huge shock to the whole system and it took fear on the part of the business classes — of social revolution from below, of communism, unions and so on. You need mobilized forces that scare the ruling classes for them even to think of making, or accepting, major changes.

I think we're in this moment of acute crisis. These are rare in history. There have been maybe four or five in the 500-year history of capitalism. 

Anne Strainchamps: These are hinge points?

NF: Hinge points (are) where a new system can be made.

Here's the way I think about it. First of all, I see the history of capitalism as periods of relative normality when the rapacious risk is, let's say, contained enough. It's offloaded on populations that don't count, or that we can ignore, because they're far away. So we build a welfare state for us. But meanwhile, we're still pumping out oil over there and so on. 

AS: What happens when one of these moments of crisis comes along – social and political upheaval and unrest – what changes? 

NF: When it ends relatively well — which doesn't always happen — you get some new form of capitalism that is structurally different. It's still driven by capital accumulation and has that rapaciousness built-in, but it's a reset. And when it works, it's also because there's some new form of economic production or technology that creates wealth that can be somewhat more widely shared, so you get more buy-in from populations. 

What made the New Deal possible was building this whole society around the internal combustion engine. Now, that turns out in hindsight to be a devil's bargain — we gave people in wealthy countries relatively good social rights at the expense of the environment. So these are not permanent solutions, but if they last for 40, 50 years, then a new way of life develops. 

AS: You think this crisis is different, though. Why? 

NF: Climate change does seem like a game changer. It's an existential threat to the entire planet, to anything resembling a human civilization. The question is, can capitalism solve it? I can't say for sure that it can't, but I'm pretty dubious. 

And so I think we should be demanding things like nationalizing the oil companies and the fossil fuel companies. Let the question of how we're going to generate energy become a political question, subject to democratic politics and social planning. 

AS: Meanwhile, I'm probably not the only person who has 2 a.m. fears that the entire thing is just going to crash and life will become like some HBO special with bands of feral humans roaming abandoned freeways. 

NF: Ravaging, lifeboat fighting, every man for themselves? 

AS: Right. But maybe after that, small communities would band together and form their own new societies? 

NF: To think after the apocalypse and devastation is too defeatist for me. I wouldn't put my life savings on the idea that we'll rise to the occasion, but we have to still fight like hell, because the alternatives are just too horrific, including that one. 

AS: I know. I keep reading articles about civilizational collapse, so it's kind of heartening to hear you say there are still things we can do. 

NF: I'm not saying we will do them. It requires political imagination and political will. But my idea is this: people everywhere are organizing. 

In some cases, they're forming nasty, right wing, white supremacist militias. In other cases, they're doing Black Lives Matter or they're fighting pipelines or deforestation or whatever. So there are a lot of people in motion. But it's fragmented. It's all over the place. What they lack is a map.

AS: A map?

NF: Of where the issue that is existential for them sits in relation to the issue that is existential for those other people over there, which isn't intuitively obvious. So what I see myself doing, and I'm not alone, is trying to map the system, so you can understand how it's the same system that's screwing you in relation to this polluted river over here, that is screwing someone else in relation to why they can't get a vaccine over there. 

You cannot fight these things one by one. You have to try to fight the system. 

AS: What would a QAnon believer or a white supremacist have in common with progressive socialist?

NF: I think you have to pull back from surface beliefs to look at where the anger comes from and what's motivating them. I would say that a lot of these people have legitimate grievances and good reason to be angry, but they have very misplaced diagnoses. They think it's the fault of immigrants, or Black people, or pedophile rings and pizza parlors, or a stolen election.

AS: They're also motivated by a deep critique of elites. 

NF: More than that. I would say that they have a map of the social hierarchy in three parts. They have an elite. They have the despised underclass who are the Mexican rapists, the Islamists, the lazy Black people who won't work. And then they have the virtuous people, the "real Americans," who are caught in the middle, and they are trying to fight the top and the bottom. 

There's also left wing populism, which does not have the despised underclass. It has the 1 percent and the 99 percent. That's also populism, not a sophisticated class analysis.

AS: When you say map, I think of something visual. 

NF: I think everyone has a map in their mind. When they do political organizing or mobilizing, they have some kind of a map of who is the enemy. The problem is that most of the maps that people generate spontaneously, if they haven't really thought about it deeply, are too simple. The map allows you to draw connections. 

So if each of us can trace the deep roots back to the same system, and if we have a name for the system, we can at least talk about how to make radical change that would get to the roots of this. 

And we might still fail. The forces of chaos and greed and stupidity are big. But for God's sake, given the stakes, how can we not try? 

The political stakes right now are so high and the situation is so severe that — this is odd to say, but — this is the moment I've been waiting for ever since the 1960s. This is the moment where some kind of radicalism is necessary and possible, because nothing else will work. That I'm sure of. Nothing but real radicalism will work.