Leslie Cunningham reviews Fortunes of Feminism by Nancy Fraser, a critical account of changes in feminist thought in the era of neoliberalism.
Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London: Verso, 2013, republished 2020). 338 pp. £11.99
The republication of this book is most timely, given both the continuing crisis of capitalism across the globe, exacerbated by Covid-19 and the very real threat of future pandemics, and the resurgence of anti-racist activity expressed in the Black Lives Matter protests. As the feminist movement appears in danger of ripping itself to shreds over issues of gender identity, particularly those concerning the rights of trans people (sadly, all too often perceived as coming into conflict with the rights of women), this collection of essays also offers useful approaches to analysing some key issues, not just for feminists, but for all who wish to establish a more just and equitable society.
I must admit to originally approaching the book somewhat from the wrong end of the telescope. I was profoundly influenced in my teens by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and by my early twenties considered myself to be an anarcho-syndicalist feminist. In 1985 this led to an interesting exchange of views between myself and a radical feminist, who took great exception to my closing sentence in a mission statement I had drafted (for a women’s mental health project) saying that ‘women’s liberation is part of human liberation’ (from capitalist exploitation and its associated evils).
Naively, I had not expected to be accused of relegating women’s rightful struggle to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression to (at best) a secondary issue or at worst a distraction from the all-important (if, in Thatcher’s Britain, the increasingly hypothetical) class struggle.
With hindsight, I should have done a lot more reading of feminist theory, but by 1987 I was encountering Marxist theory for the first time. While recognising that much of classical Marxist economics is distinctly gender-blind, I tended to dismiss the ‘cultural turn’ in feminist thinking and practice as separatist, relativist, and generally unhelpful, particularly the view that ‘all men are the enemy’.
Fortunately for me, Nancy Fraser gives a very clear account of the influence of such factors as identity politics on feminist discourse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While she does not dismiss these, she is seeking to rethink some elements of such theories, and to integrate them with earlier socialist feminist theories to provide a theoretical framework for the necessary struggle to achieve women’s liberation.
Particularly in the second and third sections of Fortunes of Feminism, she focuses on three factors which have a profoundly adverse effect, not only on women, but on other oppressed and/or marginalised people, including Black people and people of colour, migrants, and LGBTQ people. These are ‘misdistribution’ (economic disadvantage, or being poor), ‘misrecognition’ (lack of social status and/or visibility), and ‘misrepresentation’ (lack of parity in participation in political life). She rightly points out that these factors often intersect in a single person’s life experience.
In one essay ‘Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism’ Nancy Fraser takes issue with the arguments put forward by Judith Butler in her 2008 essay ‘Merely Cultural’, in which Butler suggests that heteronormative regulation of sexuality is ‘functional to the expansion of surplus value’ (Nancy Fraser’s words) – in other words, that capitalism needs or benefits from such regulation, resulting in the oppression of LGBTQ people, and that struggles against such oppression undermine the effective workings of capitalism.
As Fraser points out, and as the presence of global corporations on Pride marches also indicates, this is not in fact the case. While LGBTQ oppression is economically rooted in many ways, not just ‘cultural’, there is, in principle, no reason why capitalism could not manage without the heteronormative nuclear family (although this is highly unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future). To put it bluntly, the ‘pink pound’ is as acceptable a currency under capitalism as any other.
In the final essay, ‘Between Marketization and Social Protection’, Fraser makes the telling point that while, in recent years, much lip service has been paid to feminist principles in terms of non-sexist language and the like, the lives of the vast majority of women have not improved. Indeed, in many cases, they have got much worse (low status, low paid jobs on zero contracts, the ‘double/treble/quadruple shift’, etc.), while middle class professional women are still coming up against the glass ceiling’. And it is not simply a question of economic injustice – as Me Too and similar campaigns reveal, sexist oppression and abuse is still deeply entrenched in capitalist society.
To conclude, I suspect that Nancy Fraser and I might disagree about the possibility of (or, indeed, the necessity for) a wholesale overthrow of the capitalist system and its attendant evils in order to eradicate sexism, racism, and homophobia. However, I fully share her aspirations towards ‘a social world in which citizens’ lives integrate wage-earning, care-giving, community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational life of civil society – while also leaving time for some fun.’ (p. 185).