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Nancy Fraser: neoliberalism, identity politics, feminism and class struggle

Lecturer: Elise Addlem

Originally Taught: Winter School 2020

In this course, I will give an introduction to the philosophy of critical theorist and feminist scholar Nancy Fraser. Fraser, we’ll suggest, brings critical theory into the 21st century, exploring class struggle in a way that concentrates on the contingent, real-life individual that is as a person of colour, LGBTQI, feminist for example, and one living in the neoliberal, financialised world. Fraser develops a framework of justice that makes an examination of present-day political and social struggles theorisable. Currently a professor at the New School of Social Theory, Fraser approaches the present day with a faith in material conditions, while taking capitalism to be more than merely just an economic system. She continues the work of critical theory to make it more relevant than ever, exploring philosophical concepts in a way that is both rigorous, yet accessible. Fraser's theory is fundamental to discussions of social justice in the contemporary sphere. We will read excerpts from Fraser’s most prominent works to gain an understanding of her thought and thereby use it to analyse the current political-social crisis we face. Focusing on the central theme of justice, Fraser’s thought begins by considering the unique political juncture that ‘justice discourse’ and American social justice theory faced in the 1980s and early 1990s and it takes us all the way to the present age of Trump. Fraser unifies a Marxist analysis of late capitalism and neoliberalism with an inclusive feminist theory that refuses to reduce problems to a single dimension.

Lecture 1 Critical theory versus late-capitalist liberal feminism

In her early work, Fraser integrates the previously divergent insights of poststructuralism, critical social theory, feminist theory and pragmatism to examine issues of dominance and subordination in late-capitalist societies. First, we look at Fraser’s critical theoretical-feminist approach, before we see how she applies this to late-capitalist society. We will see why Fraser calls liberal feminism the handmaid of capitalism and how she overcomes this essentialist view and renews critical theory for feminism.

Essential reading:

  • Fraser, N., (1985). What’s critical about critical theory: The case of Habermas and gender. New German critique, 35, pp. 97-131.
  • Fraser, N., (1989). Struggle over needs: Outline of a socialist-feminist critical theory of late captialist political culture. in Unruly practices: Power, discourse, and gender in contemporary social theory. University of Minnesota Press, pp. 161-187.

Recommended reading:

  • Fraser, N., (1989). Apologia for political radicals. in Unruly practices: Power, discourse, and gender in contemporary social theory. University of Minnesota Press, pp.1-13.
  • Fraser, N. (1989). Women, welfare, and the politics of need interpretation. in Unruly practices: Power, discourse, and gender in contemporary social theory, University of Minnesota Press. pp. 144-160.
  • Fraser, N. (1992). Sex, lies, and the public sphere: Some reflections on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. Critical inquiry, 18(3), pp. 595-612.

Lecture 2 Redistribution or recognition: a theoretical exchange on social justice

In Redistribution or Recognition (2003), with perhaps her most important interlocutor ‒ recognition theorist Axel Honneth ‒ Fraser considers the meaning of justice: recognising an individual's identity and/or meeting their material needs. A fellow critical theorist who draws heavily upon Hegel, Honneth’s recognition theory was a reaction to what he saw as social justice theory’s over-emphasis on material conditions at the expense of accounting for symbolic relations. Fraser argues that recognition of symbolic relations is important, but that these relations are not the whole story of justice. In a dialectically related way, meeting the material needs of people is fundamental to justice.

Essential reading:

  • Fraser, N. & Honneth, A. (2003), Redistribution or recognition: A political-philosophical exchange, Verso. pp. 1-6.
  • Anderson, J., & Honneth, A. (2005). Autonomy, vulnerability, recognition, and justice. in J. Christman & Anderson, J. (Eds.), Autonomy and the challenges to liberalism: New essays. Cambridge University Press. pp. 127-149.
  • Fraser, N. (1997) From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a “postsocialist” age. in Justice interruptus: Critical reflections on the postsocialist condition, Taylor & Francis, pp. 31-82.

Recommended reading:

  • Fraser, N. & Honneth, A. (2003), Redistribution or recognition: A political-philosophical exchange, Verso. pp. 48-109.

Lecture 3 Fraser’s bifocal theory of justice and critique of identity politics

In her critique of recognition, Fraser examines the reification of cultural identity at the expense of individual identity. From her anti-essentialist perspective of social justice, both recognition theory and social justice discourse have come to focus too much on individual identity and symbolic relations. Therefore, she argues, it runs the risk of reifying cultural identity. Over and against the gender essentialism of second-wave feminism, Fraser proposes a ‘deconstructive version of anti-essentialism’.

Essential reading:

  • Fraser, N. and Honneth, A. (2003), Redistribution or recognition: A political-philosophical exchange, Verso, pp. 26-47 and pp. 211-236.
  • Fraser, N. (2009). Multiculturalism, antiessentialism, and radical democracy, in Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the Postsocialist Condition, Taylor & Francis, pp. 302-328.

Recommended reading:

  • Fraser, N. Heterosexism, misrecognition, and capitalism: A response to Judith Butler, Social Text, 52/53, pp. 279-289.
  • Fraser, N. and Naples, N. (2004). To interpret the world and to change it: An interview with Nancy Fraser, Signs, 29(4), pp. 1103-1124.

Lecture 4 Marx, social justice and the political in a neoliberal world

In keeping with her goal to weigh theory against the current world, her more recent thinking considers a range of issues, from the crisis of care in the financialised world to the interdimensional power struggles we face. Fraser reconfigures her social justice framework, adding the political sphere to the spheres of distribution and recognition. She maintains that it is possible for feminist theory to also maintain a critique of capitalist society, and indeed that it is the only way to understand the feminist struggle.

Essential reading:

  • Fraser, N. Reframing justice in a globalizing world. in Scales of justice: Reimagining political space in a globalizing world, Polity Press. pp. 31-69.
  • Fraser, N. and Jaeggi, R. (2018). Conceptualising capitalism. in Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory. Polity Press. pp. 22-47.

Recommended reading:

  • Fraser, N. (2013). Between marketization and social protection: Resolving the feminist ambivalence. in The fortunes of feminism: From state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. Verso. pp. 181-192.
  • Leonard, S. and Fraser, N. Capitalism’s crisis of care. Dissent.

Lecture 5 Radical democracy and the new feminism

What is feminism for all of us, and how can we make it a reality in the age of Trump? And how is anti-capitalist change possible at this moment in history? Fraser is heavily critical today of the corporate, neoliberal feminism represented by mainstream figures such as Hilary Clinton and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, which, Fraser argues, necessarily implies a refusal to think through the material conditions of social reproduction. Fraser offers a manifesto for an anticapitalist feminism for the so-called 99 percent and does so within the context of the Me Too movement.

Essential reading:

  • Arruzza, C., Bhattacharya, T., and Fraser, N. (2019). Feminism for the 99%: A manifesto. Verso.
  • Fraser, N. and Jaeggi, R. (2018). Conceptualising capitalism. in Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory. Polity Press. pp. 146-157.

Recommended reading:

  • Fraser, N. (2017). From progressive neoliberalism to Trump— and beyond. American affairs, 1(4).