Against Capitalism

the many ills of capitalism

The many ills of capitalism. Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
February 11, 2023

Radical politics and radical movements are on the rise everywhere. Against racial violence, and climate change; against gender inequality, corporate greed, low wages, oil pipelines, opioids.  Maybe at heart they all have a common cause.  Maybe they're all — in one way or another — a rebellion against capitalism.

19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels scroll on their smartphones

China Mieville is a writer best known for speculative fiction, but he's also written a lot about Marxism, most recently in a history of the Communist Manifesto called “A Spectre, Haunting."

Nancy Fraser

Over four decades, philosopher Nancy Fraser has worked to expose the deep roots that connect all the crises of our time: racial violence, environmental devastation, the impoverishment of families, challenges to democracy. Think of each as the toxic byproducts of capitalism.

Nancy Fraser

Hinge points are moments of crisis where a new system can be made. Philosopher Nancy Fraser believes the particular crises we face today are so severe they actually present an opportunity.


Show Details 📻
February 11, 2023
November 04, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

- It's "To the Best of our Knowledge."

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

(eerie music)

- What do want?
- Justice!

- When do we want it?
- Now!

- What if the anger and division we see

all around us actually made sense?

- People all over the globe

are reacting

to bad (beep).

- Now!
- What do we want?

- This is Nancy Fraser,

a leading Marxist feminist
philosopher with a deep theory

about the sources of
today's social unrest.

- What do we want?
- Justice!

- They're trying to act to
improve their situation,

to protect themselves,
to have a better life.

- Some people think that people
just need to pull themselves

up by their bootstraps, right?

And start working a little bit harder.

People are dying.

Is that okay?
- No!

- Is that okay?
- No!

- Some of them are joining
political groups to do that,

or movements.

It's fragmented.

It's all over the place.

- We need to reinstate
the eviction moratorium.

- Right.
(crowd cheering)

- What they lack

is a map.

Not enough people have a map
to understand what the relation

between what they're doing
is and what the relation with

people over there are doing.

- The governments are
deliberately creating

a two-tier divided society.

No, we will not let this happen.

- The same system that's (beep) up my life

in this way here,

is (beep) up somebody else's
life in a different way there.

Without a map, you're politically lost.

So what I see myself doing, I'm not alone.

A lot of people I know are
trying to map the system,

trying to give people a map.

- These are the politicians
who are doing the bidding

of the corporations who would
just as soon allow us to die.

- The political stakes
right now are so high

that, I mean, this is odd to say,

but this is the moment
I've been waiting for,

ever since the 1960s.

- You are participating in
an illegal demonstration,

(muffled speaking)

you'll be arrested.

- This is the moment
where a kind of radicalism

is necessary and possible,

because nothing else will
work, that I'm sure of.

Nothing but real radicalism will work.

(soft music)

(crowds shouting)

(acoustic guitar music)

- Radical politics, radical movements

are on the rise everywhere,

against racial violence
and climate change,

against gender inequality,
corporate greed,

low wages, oil pipelines, opioids.

Maybe at heart they all
have a common cause.

Maybe they are all in one way
or another against capitalism.

Well, Nancy Fraser is
the critical theorist

whose lifework is revealing
the underlying roots

that connect all the crises
facing the planet right now.

So if you're feeling despair
about the state of the world,

you need to hear why she's galvanized.

But I wanna begin by tackling a word

that has become a
contemporary bugbear, Marxism.

It gets tossed around along
with socialism and lobbed

at anybody who's ever
signed a rainforest petition

or voted for a Democrat.

But what do real Marxists
think the word means?

I mean, does anybody still
read the Communist Manifesto?

China Miéville does.

- The Communist Manifesto
essentially won't die.

It recurs throughout
history as a kind of echo

to moments of struggle,

moments of political
discontent and upheaval.

The manifesto exploding at a moment

of intense social upheaval

intended to be a political intervention,

has to be taken seriously,
claim and prediction,

and indeed exhortation
and aspiration and hope

all mixed up at once.

- China Miéville is a writer best known

for speculative fiction,

novels like Kraken,
Embassytown, Un Lun Dun,

but he's also a left wing activist

and a former socialist candidate
for the House of Commons.

He's written a lot about Marxism,

most recently in a history
of the Communist Manifesto,

called, A Spectre, Haunting.

Here's Steve Paulson.

(acoustic guitar music)

- So what specifically were
Marx and Engels calling for

in the Communist Manifesto?

What was their platform of
ideas or calls to action?

- One of the things that's
interesting about Marxism,

particularly Marx's Marxism,

is that he was always extremely resistant

to what he described later

as writing the cookbooks of the future.

He is very resistant to saying,

this is the shape of the society

I think we should be moving towards.

So their platform is essentially to say,

capitalism is a system that
is leading to ongoing crisis,

social crisis, economic crisis.

It is predicated on the
relentless and ruthless

prioritization of profit and
accumulation over human need.

It is constructed on
a fundamental division

of interests between two classes,

the working class and the ruling class.

And they say that this
system cannot be reformed.

You can't tinker with it,

and essentially make a world
fit for humans to live in,

a democratic world, a world of freedom.

And for the sake of humanity

it is urgent that it be overthrown,

and that for the first time in history,

this won't be the replacement

of one ruling class by another.

And what that means for them

is democratic grassroots control
in the hands of everyone.

- So why are you a Marxist?

Why do you see Marxism
as the best framework

for understanding how the world works?

- I think for me, there
are a couple of things.

One of the main things that
pushed me towards Marxism

when I was becoming radicalized

and doing a lot of reading and so on,

was the fact that Marxism
is a total theory.

So that I don't believe that the world

is just a random mix of facts.

I think that we live in a
very interconnected society,

and that there is a connection
between the exchange rates

of the US dollar and the
French franc in the 1970s,

and Donald Duck and women's oppression

and the history of slavery
and the nature of Hollywood

and the publishing.

These things are connected with nexuses

and dynamics of power and
oppression and exploitation.

And the other aspect that
is very important to me

is that I'm deeply
skeptical about the idea

that capitalism can ultimately be reformed

into being a world fit for human beings.

And you know, to put it very simply,

I would really like to live
in a world in which human need

was the priority rather than profit.

- Let me bring this
story up to the present

and draw some comparisons
or maybe parallels to today.

There's this whole movement
of democratic socialism,

maybe you'd call it social democracies,

I think what you would
say is trying to reclaim

a responsible kind of capitalism.

In other words, keep the
capitalist system in place,

but have lots of regulations
to reign in the excesses.

So, you know, environmental
regulations, worker safety laws,

high tax rates on the wealthy,

labor unions do demand
better working conditions.

I mean, essentially the kind of political

and economic structure

that we've seen in Scandinavian
countries for decades.

But that is not what you are
advocating, is that correct?

- No, I mean, yes, it is correct.

Even today, I think the term
socialism is a very big tent

and it contains multitudes.

And I have no problem describing
myself as a socialist,

and unlike a lot of those other people,

I would, as you imply,

not also be perfectly happy

to describe myself as a communist.

That is.

- But you would or you would
say, you would not be unhappy

to describe yourself as a communist?

- I would not not be unhappy. Yeah.

And you can tell, I'm hedging that with,

you know, with double negatives.

- A double negative.

- But part of the reason for that,

like I mean, I'm not naive.

I'm well aware of the
connotations that get thrown up

into people's minds if
they hear that word,

which is exactly why in the book

I say there is no inevitable sense

that communism equals Stalinism equals Mao

equals Pol Pot.

And here is a little bit about

the historical debates and
the anti-Stalinist traditions

within communism and so on.

So sure, you can call me a socialist,

you can call me a communist.

But in both cases,

I want to have a discussion about

what exactly we mean by that.

- Now, there's another
phrase that is memorable

from the Communist Manifesto,

and that's what they thought would be

the coming dictatorship
of the proletariat.

Which seems like a very
problematic phrase,

but I'm also just wondering

what the current parallels,

what would the proletariat mean today?

And what about the bourgeoisie?

- Yeah, it's worth saying.

I mean, you're quite right.

The phrase, the dictatorship
of the proletariat

has been a millstone

and a stick to beat
Marxism for many years.

And I get why, you know,

it is a phrase that rings horribly today.

What we're talking about with class,

we're talking about a relation
to power and to profits.

And Engels in one of the documents

that went into the manifesto,

describes the proletariat
as that class of society,

which lives exclusively by its labor,

not on the profit of any kind of capital,

and whose weal and woe and
life and death therefore depend

on the fluctuations of competition.

And once you think of it in those terms,

you see that when people say,

oh, well, you know, these days a barista,

what does that have to do with
a 19th century mine worker?

It seems to me fairly uncontroversial

that there is a distinction
in the interests of those

who have to sell their
labor power to live,

and those who control the machinery

of profit-making and exploitation.

This is not rocket science.

There are plenty of conservatives

who wouldn't disagree with
that picture, let's be clear.

- So it seems to me that the huge obstacle

in this whole discussion that we're having

is trying to imagine a
world without capitalism,

a post-capitalist future.

I mean, I've heard people say

that it is easier to
imagine the end of the world

than the end of capitalism.

- Well, I think it's accurate to say

that you cannot truly
see beyond capitalism.

You can't think beyond it.

We are people right now who
have grown up in this system.

So our own minds are going to be limited,

When the world starts to change,

a thousand new ideas will occur to us

that we literally couldn't
have thought before.

We've seen this throughout history.

This is the way the human mind works.

It's not above socialism or
communism or whatever to say,

ah, but you can't describe
an alternative society.

The point is,

do you believe that this
is the best we can do?

And if not,

do you believe that it is worth the wager

of trying to change it fundamentally,

and this is the same wager

that people have made throughout history.

You know, Ursula Le Guin
has this beautiful quote

where she says,

"We live in capitalism.

It's power seems inescapable,

but then so did the divine right of kings.

Any human power can be resisted

and changed by human beings."

I cannot think of anything
more important than that.

- Do you have a vision, a personal vision

of what this post-capitalist
world might look like?

Just sort of little glimpses?

- Yeah, it's much less about a picture

of the bureaucratic
institutions of the world,

and much more a sense of the kind of ways

that I would hope I and
other people would feel.

Look at the rates of anxiety,

look at the rates of, you know,

really serious debilitating
mental distress and illness.

Do we think that these
have no relationship

to the structure of society,

which encourages us into,
not just encourages,

compels us into competition
with each other at every moment

of the day that valorizes
winners and denigrates losers,

and I use those terms with scare quotes.

One of the key things that that

very, very often spurs in people is shame,

and the sense that
they've let people down.

The fact that that is happening
at the same time as like,

just to take one example from
many thousands that, you know,

big pharma is raking in
these unbelievable profits,

or that like the fossil fuel industry

has had its profits skyrocketing

because of the carnage of the Ukraine war.

And someone on minimum
wage is feeling ashamed

that they can't buy the
right toy for their kid.

This is a monstrous act of violence.

I would really like a society

in which people don't feel

ashamed and exhausted all the time.

So I would really, really like a society

in which we are, as Engels put it,

"an entirely different
kind of human material."

(light piano music)

- China Miéville, talking
with Steve Paulson.

China's best known as the
author of speculative fiction,

for which he has won

the Hugo, Locus, and Arthur
C Clarke Awards many times.

He's a former socialist candidate
for the House of Commons.

And his most recent
nonfiction book about Marxism

is called, A Specter, Haunting,
on the Communist Manifesto.

(uptempo acoustic music)

So maybe that gives you a sense

of where contemporary
Marxists are coming from.

Next we're gonna talk
with one of the world's

preeminent Marxist thinkers,

philosopher and critical
theorist, Nancy Fraser.

For four decades,

she's been extending
Marx and Engels ideas,

incorporating feminism, racial justice,

the environment, and now the pandemic.

She's a woman I admire and
have come to know as a friend.

- I kind of groove to this.

I like to be a troublemaker.

Sometimes I go too far
and then I regret it,

and I suddenly say, oh my
God, now what have I done?

But a lot of me really gets off on that.

- So, did you make trouble there?

- I did.

And I'll tell you why after this.

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge"

from Wisconsin Public Radio

and PRX.

(water flowing)

Steve and I spent the first
summer of the pandemic

living in a borrowed
house in rural Vermont.

(acoustic guitar music)

There was a couple just up the road,

spending a pandemic year there.

Nancy Fraser and Eli Zaretsky.

Eli's an intellectual historian,

and Nancy's a Marxist
feminist philosopher.

They both teach at the
New School in New York.

The four of us hit it off,

and we started getting
together for dinner.

- What do you think we
should do with this?

- I had such a strong sense
of connection to Nancy

right from the start.

- Actually, I have a, a recipe that I use.

- I liked talking with her
about books and politics.

- Ooh,

you're making a salad too?

- And the fact that socialism
was back in the news.

- It seems bizarre to me that,

that it wasn't that long ago
that people were having a fit

about the word socialism.

- Right.
- Right.

- The Republicans are still, you know,

have fits about that word,

but that word in the US

does not frighten young people anymore.

- Why do you think that is?

- I think it's because

it was so taboo for so long

that it doesn't have any
negative associations.

That's what I think, yeah.

- Americans don't treat
philosophers like celebrities,

but in other countries,

Nancy Fraser is an intellectual rockstar.

(soft jazz music)

Over four decades,

she's built a sweeping
theory of capitalism,

exposing the deep roots

that connect all the crises of our time.

Racial violence,
environmental devastation,

the impoverishment of families,
challenges to democracy.

Think of them as the toxic byproducts

of a massively polluted
source called capitalism.

Nancy's life work is mapping that system.

- One needs a certain cognitive leap

to understand how it's the
same system that's screwing you

in relation to this polluted river 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.

- I'm still stuck on the idea of the map.

- Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good.

- You were talking about
how we all have maps,

and I was thinking we could talk about

the process for you personally.

How you constructed your own.

- My map.

- Your map.

Political map.

- Yes, let's do it.

- Okay.

I just found this Marxist feminist

with the sharp wit and a
rigorous mind fascinating.

And I wanted to understand
the forces and experiences

that shaped her.

- That's better. Thanks.

- There was that story you told

the last time we were
together that I really loved,

the one about you and the sit-in?

- Yeah, yeah, yeah.

(crowd shouting)
(piano music)

- So I think the story has
assumed an important place

in my self-understanding,

as like a certain kind of aha moment.

I was a new left activist in the late 60s

while I was in college at Bryn Mawr.

I was part of Philadelphia SDS.

- Students for a Democratic Society.

- And went on this day to
the office of the president

of the University of Pennsylvania
to hand in the petitions

and let him know that there
was a lot of opposition.

As it turned out, the guy wasn't there,

and we just sort of camp out on the floor

of this reception area.

The campus was already like a tinder box.

There was so much agitation and
radical organizing going on,

anti-war stuff and related stuff.

So somehow the word started circulating

that there was a sit-in
in the president's office,

which was not really the case.

And people began coming in and joining

and sitting down with us,

a couple of hundred people at least.

Finally, the president returned.

He was a very smooth guy,

like a lot of these administrators are.

He was thanking us and
sort of flattering us

and assuring us that he would really

take the material we were
giving him very seriously,

into full consideration, blah, blah, blah.

And then he turned as if to, you know,

leave us and go into his office.

And then the people sitting on the floor

started scrambling a little bit to get up

like they were gonna go,

like this was gonna be the end.

And this guy who was in our
group from Philadelphia SDS

suddenly stood up and he said,

"What, do you think we're idiots?

You must take us for fools.

You think you can just say that

and we're gonna get up and go home?"

And bam, instantly everybody sat down.

(crowd shouting)

Then a real sit-in and
building occupation occurred,

which lasted over a week and became huge.

This moment changed everything.

It made a very deep impression on me,

because it just showed me
what an individual could do.

I was already kind of interested
in this guy romantically.

And in fact, I later married him.

He became my first husband.

But I immediately said to myself somehow,

I wanna be like that.

Not, oh, I'm in love with this guy,

but I wanna be like this guy.

The thing that struck me so much

was the utter lack of intimidation.

Everybody else, including me,

when the guy sort of waved us off,

we sheep, were gonna just follow in line.

And this incredible
moment when you realize

you don't have to, you don't
have to do what he says.

You shouldn't let the trappings
of authority deter you

when you're doing something

you think is important and right.

(group shouting)
(piano music)

- When Nancy told me that story,

I knew exactly what she meant,

because that's how I feel about her.

She is formidable.

That unapologetic certainty,
that fearlessness.

Hanging out with her reminds me

that I used to have more of that myself

and that I want it back.

- A great deal of my life has been about

standing up to authority

and finding my way more and more

with the capacity to be unafraid

to say what I really think.

- I did have one idea about where

some of that intellectual independence

might have taken shape.

(church bells ringing)

(acoustic guitar music)

Nancy and I both went to Bryn Mawr,

a historically women's college,

one of the first in the country

to give women graduate degrees.

At Bryn Mawr, when you
need to visit the dean,

you walk past a row of
gold framed portraits

of the school's founders and presidents.

And at most colleges, those
would be men in suits.

At Bryn Mawr, they're almost all women.

So there's a kind of
feminist consciousness

literally embedded in the place,

which for me at least, was formative.

- The actual experience of being there,

I think had the same kind of impact on me,

as you just described, for yourself,

without processing it consciously.

The mere fact that we were fully entitled

to pursue the life of the mind

with full engagement passion,

with every ounce of
intelligence we could muster.

There was no jockeying in the classroom

with guys who, you know,

wanted to talk too much and
trouble in getting to speak.

It was only much later when I got to know

other women in philosophy

who with such great talent and brilliance

were internally divided, self-doubting,

had so many issues about entitlement.

And I was kind of amazed
and I began to think,

well, I don't feel that, and why?

And that's when I started
to realize how how great

Bryn Mawr had been for me.

This was a kind of maybe a proto feminism,

because it wasn't
ideological feminism for me.

Feminism came later.

I went through the typical
progression for my generation

of anti-war,

SDS, Marxism, et cetera, et cetera.

And then we could even
go back a little earlier

to my involvement in the Civil
Rights movement in Baltimore.

(dramatic orchestral music)

because Baltimore, when I was growing up,

was a Jim Crow legally segregated city.

(dramatic orchestral music)

- Gaslighted streets,
spotless front steps,

colorful screen paintings.

These you say are Baltimore.

True, but Baltimore, like
most American cities,

is also block after block
of incredibly bad housing.

- Schools, restaurants, amusement parks,

public swimming pools,
everything was separated by race.

- There were great plans
to rehabilitate this area,

but plans have only a
paper and pencil reality.

- Her parents were FDR
Democrats, New Dealers.

At least for a while your family

had a live-in black servant.

- A maid, yes.

(acoustic guitar music)

It was quite normal in the
times I was growing up for

people to have employed black maids,

and for those who could afford
them even live-in maids.

So the suburban houses, including
the one that I lived in,

were built with a maid's room.

- And the maid was part
of your family's life then

for a long time?

- Well, yes.

- What was her name?

Well, the first one who was there

when I was really young
was Pearl, Pearl Burton.

And you know, she really
raised me, I have to say.

And then later she was, I
guess, retired or became ill,

or I don't even know the details.

I mean, that's just it.

Someone who was that intimate,

and you don't even really
know exactly what happened.

And then we had another woman
named Riva from Jamaica,

whom I adored, who was a great cook.

The point is that I
grew up in an atmosphere

in which this seemed normal.

All of this was somehow shrouded.

(acoustic guitar music)

We used to go every
summer to Atlantic City.

It was a long drive.

We often had to stop to go to restaurants,

and Riva or Pearl would stay in the car

and we would go in and eat and
get a takeout meal for her.

- She wasn't allowed in.

- Wasn't allowed in,

and I, as a young girl,
would say to my parents,

why can't Pearl come in?

Why does she have to eat in the car?

And you know, my parents
would be embarrassed really,

by these questions and would say, well,

it's the law and this law is
a bad law and a wrong law,

and we wanna change it.

But there it is.

I was getting these mixed
messages from my parents.

So by the time that the Civil
Rights movement erupted,

you know, really right
there in Baltimore, I was,

I would say already primed basically,

to get involved to the degree that I could

as like a 14-year-old.

(acoustic guitar music)

- Nancy read Karl Marx for
the first time in college,

it was exhilarating.

- I was already on my way
to becoming a Marxist.

A handful of us organized

what in our very unsophisticated
minds was the real Marx.

And I believe that I
gave one of the lectures,

and covered the blackboard

with seeming mathematical formulas

to design to prove that capitalism

would definitely collapse pretty soon.

So I mean, this was the level of.

- But it wasn't all
idealism and excitement.

- Something really important happens.

This is another sort of
formative story for me.

A lot of the anti-war movement,

or at least in these circles,

had a quasi-religious ethos.

There was a lot of talk about witnessing

and this kind of stuff.

For a secular Jew like me, this
was all very foreign to me,

this kind of talk.

I was getting a message
about what it meant

to be really committed and really serious.

And then I'm reading in the newspapers

about Buddhist monks immolating
themselves and so on.

And I literally found
myself sitting on the train

back and forth, thinking thoughts like,

well, if you're really serious,

how can you justify not
burning yourself up?

Things like that.

- Were these thought
experiments or were these?

- No no, I was struggling to understand

how to be a really dedicated activist.

And this was a model.

And it was then that I
met these SDS people.

I sometimes tell this story,

I was on the verge of burning myself up,

and then I met some Trotskyists.

And they basically showed me that,

no, you don't have to do that.

There's another way.

And so for me, SDS was
literally a lifesaver.

(guitar harmonics)

- This strikes me as partly the story

of an individual woman's

political and personal coming of age,

but it's also generational.

10 years later, my teenage
years were marked by Watergate,

the recession, Jimmy
Carter wearing a sweater

in the White House and telling
us all to turn down the heat.

Maybe I'm less inclined
to take on the system

because in my experience, it usually wins.

- Now, let me say first

that I also lived through
all those dark times.

I mean, my generation was not just

the generation of idealism
and optimistic belief

that we could change the world.

We really thought we could,

but we had to learn that
it wasn't that easy.

We had to go through radical groups

becoming evermore inward,
authoritarian, self-cannibalizing.

You know, there was a lot
of stuff that went down.

- Really?

- Well, you know, you had asked earlier

about the gender dynamics.

I think that our lives
became much more conventional

in gender terms.

Things were normalizing,

and there was this
stealth sort of takeover

that none of us really knew had happened

until much, much later.

The sort of undoing of the various kinds

of New deal social programs,

the voting rights, of all of this stuff,

the kind of neoliberalization

and financialization of the country.

And there was a lot
going on at the same time

as the new left was trying
to grapple with the fact

that the 60s were over.

As the guy in "The Big
Lebowski" said, your side lost.

(both laughing)

In the meantime, my
marriage was falling apart

because everything was,
horizons were shrinking.

The revolution basically stalled out.

Stalled, okay, that's a good word.

I was gonna say failed, but
I didn't really mean failed,

let's say stalled out.

And then I thought to
myself, okay, I need,

we're not gonna have socialism
in the next five years.

I need a longer range plan for my life.

And I said, well, I
used to love philosophy.

I'm gonna go and see if
I can pick that up again.

(upbeat jazz music)

- As it turned out,

philosophy can also be
a path to revolution.

- I'm being reborn.

My 1960s self is being reborn today.

- We'll be right back.

I'm Ann Strainchamps,

and this is "To the
Best of Our Knowledge,"

from Wisconsin Public Radio

and PRX.

(acoustic guitar music)

(water flowing)

(birds chirping)

In the summer of 2021,

smoke from wildfires in the
west drifted over Vermont.

The pandemic was still raging

and Steve and I were
back for a second summer,

but this time the air was hazy with soot.

I feel it's gonna be hot today.

My throat burned.

I had trouble breathing and I
was scared about the future.

It's very warmer than when we started out.

And that's when Nancy and I
picked up our conversation.

I think I'm probably not the only person

who has these 2:00 a.m. fears

that the entire thing is just gonna crash

and it's gonna be like some HBO special

with bands of humans

roaming the abandoned freeways.

- Ravaging, yeah.

Lifeboat, fighting, every
man for themselves, right.

- Except Nancy Fraser
was having none of it.

- We can't allow that to happen.

To think after the apocalypse,

that is too defeatist for me.

- She felt the urgency.

- Time is short and getting shorter.

- But if 40 years of thinking
deeply about capitalism

has taught her anything,

it's the value of a good crisis.

- I mean, this is hard to say,

but this is the moment
I've been waiting for

ever since the 1960s.

This is the moment where
a kind of radicalism

is necessary and possible,

because nothing else will
work, that I'm sure of.

Nothing but real radicalism will work.

Look, I do believe that moments
of deep and acute crisis,

terrible impasses, something's gotta give.

We can't go on like this.

When things get interesting
are 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 a fear on the
part of the business classes

of social revolution from below,

of communism, of unions and so on.

- The New Deal was more of a
redesign than a revolution.

But Nancy thinks this moment,
this crisis is different.

- Climate change is a game
changer, it threatens everyone.

So I think we should be demanding things

like nationalize the oil companies

and the fossil fuel companies.

Let it become a political question

how we're gonna generate energy.

Nationalize all the energy companies.

- Socialize the means of production,

because how could you
leave something as critical

as the future of the planet

up to something as chaotic as a market?

- I think planning is part of socialism.

It's the alternative to the market.

Forgive me, but the word planning.

- It's good word.

- Thinking utopia through planning?

Somehow, how could you allow

the question of greenhouse gases to just

happen however it happens

because people think they
can make money to invest.

No, the IPCC

is the nucleus of a greenhouse
gas planning commission.

It hasn't yet been
empowered, but it should be.

And you need other comparable things.

Planning has to be democratic.

It can't be the old
communist nomenklatura.

This whole question of
what to produce, how much,

and what to do with surplus.

- That is profits.

- These should be fundamental
political questions.

I think socialism is the democratization

of the decision-making
about all those questions.

And I'm not saying that
it requires abolition

of all private property.

You could simply tax at a very
high expropriative degree,

the profits that represent the surplus,

and say, that's collective property.

"We all built that together,

you didn't do it," as
Elizabeth Warren used to say.

We did that. You didn't
do that as an individual.

That's our surplus, we'll
decide what to do with it.

Thank you.

But we'll be happy to pay
you a nice cushy salary,

for, you know, your own
personal payroll consumption.

But you don't control the surplus, we do.

- Do I get to own my house?

- Sure.

Nothing has to do with personal
property is never at stake.

- But it's not just about the economy.

- For me, capitalism is the
name for the social order.

I don't equate it with class

in the traditional sense of class.

- No, when you talk about capitalism,

you're not just talking about class

and you're not just talking
about economy either.

- Capitalism is inherently
gender asymmetric,

inherently racializing.

But I do feel the need to name a system

that is the container,
let's say, of all of this.

There's one system here,

I feel very strongly about that.

I don't like so-called dual
or triple systems theory,

where we have three systems,

capitalism, patriarchy,
and white supremacy.

No, there's one system,

and it generates all of these things

in a complex way together.

(crowd cheering)

- A majority of the states

call for final ratification
of the Equal Rights Amendment.

(crowd cheering)

(soft music)

- Nancy got her doctorate
in philosophy in the 1970s,

during the heyday of the women's movement,

Title IX, the ERA, Roe V Wade.

She followed all of it,

but was not personally all that interested

in gender questions.

- But something else was going on

because of my marriage at the time.

- Remember the charismatic
leader from the new left,

the guy she admired so much at the sit-in?

- The marriage was not very successful.

He was so dominating and
took up so much space

that I fell very much
into a subordinate role,

but it wasn't so much about gender.

Everybody, all the men around the group

had that same subordinate role to him.

So it took a while for me to figure out

the gender aspects of it.

- Who broke up with whom?

- It was more me, it was more me.

I just felt that,

that his voice was too loud in my head.

I wanted to hear my thoughts,

not as a kind of reaction to him,

but just in and of
themselves for themselves.

When the feminism began
to resonate more for me

at the experiential level,

was when I left graduate school

and went out into the work world

as a young philosophy professor.

(acoustic guitar music)

Then, you know, the (beep) hit the fan.

- So then you began encountering

real sexism?
- Oh my god.

I mean, my first job was at
the University of Georgia

in Athens, Georgia.

They said a Marxist feminist

from Greenwich Village is coming.

So, I was a lightning rod
for a lot of controversy.

- But was that fun?

- You know, I kind of groove to this.

I like to be a troublemaker.

Sometimes I go too far
and then I regret it,

and I suddenly say, oh my
God, now what have I done?

But a lot of me really gets off on that.

- So did you make trouble there?

- I did.

(soft jazz music)

- This is both fascinating
and a little foreign to me.

The thought of making trouble,

really getting into trouble,

kind of makes my stomach clench.

Especially today when the social cost

of thinking or saying the wrong thing

will get you called out publicly.

Meanwhile though,

Nancy was alarmed by the direction

mainstream liberal white
feminism was headed,

and she began writing about

the dangers of identity politics.

- The feminist movement

and other successor
movements to the new left

were dropping the
political-economic critique,

and focusing on the recognition critique

at just the moment when neoliberalization

was running rampant.

So we were not paying attention.

- The social safety net
begins to erode and.

- And the working class
is taking huge hits.

Unions are being broken,
wages are being driven down,

manufacturing is moving abroad,

being replaced by low wage service work.

All the things that we're
so familiar with today,

that was going on while the
various social movements,

including feminism, were
essentially asleep at the wheel,

focused on, you know.

- Breaking the glass
ceiling and leaning in.

- Exactly, exactly.

(soft jazz music)

- To be a white woman on the left,

critiquing the language
of difference, took guts.

Her main point, to put it simply,

is that when radical
movements stop focusing

on the redistribution of wealth and power,

and get caught up in
identity-based politics,

things generally go badly.

She sees the same
mistake playing out today

in the arena of anti-racism

and the critique of whiteness
and white fragility.

- This is poisoned from my point of view.

This I lived through in SDS.

The discourse of white privilege

came from groups within SDS,

including the Weathermen.

- This system is gonna be overthrown.

It's gonna mean a fight,

and it's gonna mean a lot of white people

risking a lot of things.

- This was a wrong turn then,

and now there's amnesia
and no one even remembers

where the discourse of
white privilege came from.

- Tell me more about where it came from.

I didn't know it had anything
to do with the new left.

- Definitely.

In this process when the new
left was basically imploding,

part of what was happening,

as always happens in these moments

of almost like religious
awakenings almost.

It turns inward at a certain point.

White skin privilege it
was originally called.

- Hmm.

But it isn't it supposed to be

a systemic structural picture,

simply intended to name white privilege.

I think so many of the, at
least the initial conversations,

black activists were trying to have

with their white colleagues and neighbors

was to simply point out,

hey, look, you may not
think you're racist,

but there's a reason you can
afford a house and I can't.

- Look, it's true that

if you just look at things
like home ownership,

which is the main way that families

acquire wealth in America,

if they're not born into
the capitalist class

with redlining and all the forms

of residential segregation
and indebtedness,

it's absolutely true that
people who are born white

have some advantages,

even when they're not in
the wealthiest strata.

That's absolutely true.

That's not an issue,

but the overwhelming
majority of white people

are getting screwed by this system.

How do you build

a powerful political movement
to change the system?

Not by saying, oh, you are white and bad.

Anyway, you know, I sort
of feel like things are,

in some respects better today,

because there is a much
broader understanding

of how structural race
is in American society.

Look, I mean, you know,

it's very hard to figure out exactly

how to really think about all of this,

because there is this kind
of authoritarian forms

of identity policing and-

- Cancel culture.

- Cancel culture, political correctness,

et cetera, et cetera.

People lose their focus

on the big picture and look for shortcuts.

How can we change people
instead of institutions?

(acoustic guitar music)

- How do you make the world a better place

when even with the best intentions

you can wind up hurting someone else?

We live in a complicated
world of overlapping crises,

injustice, layered upon inequality.

There's a phrase Nancy uses
that always jumps out at me,

mapping the system.

In my head I imagine a
crinkled sheet of paper,

a guide maybe to finding a way forward.

- People all over the globe are reacting.

They're trying to act to
improve their situation,

to protect themselves,
to have a better life.

Some of them are joining
political groups to do that,

or movements including

nasty right wing, proto-fascist movements.

Not enough people have a map to understand

what the relation between
what they're doing is,

and what the relation with
people over there are doing.

If each of us can trace the deep roots

back to the same system.

If we have a name for the system,

we can at least talk about, right?

How to begin to make radical change.

But for God's sake, given the
stakes, how can we not try?

(birds chirping)

How can we not try?

(acoustic guitar music)

- Nancy Fraser is a professor
of philosophy and politics

at the New School for Social Research.

She's a celebrated
Marxist feminist theorist

with multiple degrees,
awards and books to her name.

The most recent are "Feminism For the 99%"

and "Cannibal Capitalism: How our system

is devouring democracy,
care, and the planet,

and what we can do about it."

(birds chirping) "To the Best
of Our Knowledge" comes to you

from Wisconsin Public Radio
in Madison, Wisconsin.

Our producers are Charles Monroe-Kane,

Shannon Henry Kleiber and Angelo Bautista.

Mark Riechers rules our digital universe.

Our technical director and sound designer

is Joe Hardtke with
help from Sarah Hopefl.

Additional music this week comes from

One Plezier, Jarvik, Ketza,

Oak Studios and One Man Book.

Steve Paulson is our Executive Producer.

And I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Be well and thanks for listening.

(water washing)

(birds chirping)

(bright music)

- PRX.

Last modified: 
November 01, 2023