Book Review: Nancy Fraser, “Fortunes of Feminism”

Fortunes of Feminism is in first instance primarily a collection of powerful essays in critical theory by the feminist thinker Nancy Fraser – currently professor of Political and Social Science and also of Philosophy at The New School in New York. However, there is more to it than merely a collection of the usual kind, often titled something like ‘philosophical papers’, that simply intends to gather a philosopher’s most influential or representative articles over the course of a lifetime’s work. Rather, both the topic of the essays and their organization are themselves reflective. On the one hand, as we move from the earliest essays – written in the mid-1980s – to the more contemporary ones, we follow the development of Nancy Fraser’s own thought. This ranges from early feminist engagements with the thought and legacy of the Frankfurt School to the debates with, and incorporation of, the work of some of the major ‘poststructuralist’ thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. This culminates in an attempt to overcome their aporias through a move towards the mobilization of economic theory for new considerations of ‘the social’ and its defense.

On the other hand, however, this chronological and intellectual development in turn also reflects the fortunes of feminism itself, as the title suggests. The central theme of the book is how second wave feminism originated in the New Left and its ‘big tent’ of critical theories derived from Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics and various other elements, in attempting to correct for and move beyond the androcentrism and sexism inherent in much of the political practice and social theorizing of these respective intellectual elements. While in the 1970s the relative strength of organized left-wing political organizations gave the feminist and LGBT movements of their day a certain immediate political and economic focus, by the 1980s the theoretical battleground had shifted considerably towards a ‘cultural turn’.

This is reflected in the sequence of the book’s thematic parts. The first section of the book is mainly about the immediate response to the social-democratic and the New Left’s respective politics. It deals with Fraser’s critique of the omission of gender and the unreflective acceptance of the nuclear family as part of organic society in the thought of Jürgen Habermas; the shift from phrasing radical arguments for the emancipation of poor and oppressed groups from talking in terms of rights and interests to talking in terms of needs; and, together with Linda Gordon, a Foucauldian ‘genealogy’ of the concept of dependency in US bureaucratic-welfarist social regulation. Finally, there is an excellent essay comparing the different social-democratic and welfarist approaches to income redistribution by means of strengthening the ‘family wage’, and how the different conceptions of equality underlying each have had different positive and especially negative effects on the position of women.

The second part of what Fraser calls her “drama in three acts” (1) concentrates on her often polemical engagements with ‘symbolicism’ and the politics of recognition and identity, reflecting the increased influence of these modes of feminist discourse during the wane of the left and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Here, theorists such as Fraser who came out of the Marxist-oriented thinking of ‘critical theory’ and the New Left found themselves between a rock and a hard place. While in some conservative and hard-nosed Marxist (male) circles the turn towards ‘identity politics’ has been simply dismissed as a concession to liberalism and idealism and a move away from economic struggle, Fraser’s essays from this period show an acute awareness of the virtues as well as the dangers of the politics of recognition and identity. Her stated goal was rather to “retrieve the best insights of socialist-feminism and to combine them with a non-identitarian version of the politics of recognition” (9). This requires, of course, the difficult disjunction of the two, which in most hostile Marxist discourse, as well as in criticisms from liberals and the right, have generally been conflated. But for Fraser, this is not necessary, and her essays give some strong materials for a socialist approach that could recognize recognition, as it were, without falling into the strong social-constructivist and identitarian forms of discourse that so often seem to end up with a dissolution into the atomized, self-creating individual of the neoliberal order.

In what is perhaps the most abstractly philosophical essay of the book, the second section opens with Fraser’s critique of Julia Kristeva and her applications of the psychoanalytic-‘symbolicist’ thought of Jacques Lacan to feminism. Fraser convincingly argues for the merits of pragmatist views of language over the structuralism of Lacanian interpretations of discourse, since the former have the great merit from the socialist point of view of retaining the recognition of language as an inherently collective and social medium, albeit one undergoing constant change in accordance with the praxis of the individuals who utilize it. Such an approach to language allows a historicizing of discourse that can demonstrate its fluidity and the strengths and weaknesses of a particular discourse at a particular time, without falling into either the Scylla of reifying discourse of gender (or anything else) into a permanent identity or the Charybdis of wanting to do away with all identity altogether and declaring it to be a purely harmful conception in political struggle. As Fraser puts it: “it will not be time to speak of postfeminism until we can legitimately speak of postpatriarchy”, which is a matter of more than mere discourse analysis.

The second essay of the second section, “Feminist Politics in the Age of Recognition”, is itself an earlier historical reflection on the fortunes of feminism, and in particular socialist feminism. (This book is sometimes so self-reflective that it gives the reader a kind of ‘Russian doll’ effect, but this is not a bad thing.) The central argument here is that ‘gender justice’, as Fraser calls it, must be two dimensional: it must include justice of distribution (the economic) as well as justice of recognition (the social). Her following essay, a debate with Judith Butler, has much the same theme. In fact, one can conclude that this attempt to reconcile the two, socio-cultural and economic, dimensions of politics is the central preoccupation of the middle part of the book. “An indispensable starting point”, Fraser concludes her critique of Butler, “must be a principled acknowledgement that both sides have legitimate claims… Social justice today, in sum, requires both redistribution and recognition.” (186)

In the third section, misrepresentation is added, so that Fraser’s trinity of injustices of contemporary capitalism – maldistribution, misrecognition, and misrepresentation – map onto what she considers the fundamental dimensions of justice today: respectively the economic, the cultural, and the political. But how to reconcile these often conflicting demands, especially in the era of neoliberalism when each justice claim is encouraged to be individually in competition with the others? Perhaps the most important essays are the two at the end of the book on this topic. In “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History”, Nancy Fraser suggests that the fortunes of feminism have been such that each of its elements has been co-opted by the neoliberal order: from questions of distribution, via the politics of recognition, to the internationalism of the left. The critique of the welfarist androcentrism and paternalism has become a vehicle for abolishing the welfare state; the politics of recognition and the opposition to the androcentric ‘economism’ of the orthodox Marxists led to the eclipse of social and economic critique by the discourse of cultural theory, “trading one truncated paradigm for another” (219).

Fraser suggests that this tandem movement has not been a coincidence. In fact, she locates it where various contemporary Marxist reflections on the 1968 movement and its legacy have also located it: in the limitations of the New Left as ultimately unable to organize beyond its critique of traditional authority. Absent a positive alternative to welfare capitalism, this critique would be co-opted by those seeking to destroy the paternalist welfare state and to replace it by the regime of the enforced creation of markets and the individual as consumer, ‘free’ from any such authoritarian constraints. This kind of ‘freedom’ in capitalism has long been familiar to Marxists and – without saying as much – Fraser’s conclusions fit within this Marxist critique of the politics of liberal freedom, however superior this may be compared to traditional authority. In her final essay, Fraser here uses Polanyi’s concept of ‘social protection’, that is the protection of the social against the economic conceived of as ‘marketization’. This, she suggests, could be an agenda for a 21st century feminism of an explicitly anti-neoliberal kind: breaking the “dangerous liaison with marketization and forge a principled new alliance with social protection”, which entails combining “nondomination” with “legitimate interests in solidarity and social security”.

On the whole, this is a fascinating book, and an extremely instructive (and constructive) read in understanding how it came about that feminism and similar movements ended up unwittingly falling into a neoliberal trap. For a work of fairly abstract theory, it is relatively accessible to read and Fraser takes good care to make her concepts and theoretical arguments clear to follow even for those not intimately familiar with Lacan or Foucault. If there is one major weakness to the book, it is not in her historical critique of feminism’s direction, but in the terms in which she offers a solution. Her Polanyian perspective is unable to overcome the distinction between economic and social that is the source of so much tension in the politics of feminism in the first place (and of much of the left in general). Although wishing a two, then three dimensional justice rather than a vulgar economism is laudable, it seems to me that as long as a countermovement is simply seen as a defense of ‘the social’ against ‘the economic’, it leaves much of the conceptual terrain to the neoliberal ascendancy.

Indeed, while the ‘economistic’ Marxist theories and organizations have made themselves look foolish by ignoring the multidimensionality of identity formation and social experience, they did have the advantage of seeking to theorize society in a way that would overcome such a dichotomy between social and economic, and understand market exchange and capitalist social relations as irreducibly social and historically bounded. The mental and material aspects of our experience are not conceptually distinct, but different moments of the same reproduction process of our social relations. It is therefore important to recover that aspect of traditional Marxism that goes beyond this dichotomy: that neither a mere distributional welfarism nor a defense of civil society from ‘the market’ can achieve a lasting victory over liberal ideology, either politically or theoretically.

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