16th Sep, 2020

Nancy Fraser

Giorgio Cesarale



Nancy Fraser’s positions have taken up a particularly important place in the contemporary debate on socialism. But we ought to evaluate both the merits of what she proposes, and its problems.


Nancy Fraser’s discourse on socialism, as espoused in ‘What Should Socialism Mean in the Twenty-First Century?’, has the merit of being historically situated and theoretically structured. It is historically situated because, right from the first paragraph, it declares its own belonging to a specific political context. Which is to say, that context determined by the powerful rise of the US socialist movement after the great crash of 2007-8 – not only in the version advanced by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (the left wing of the Democrats), but also that of the Democratic Socialists of America (currently the biggest independent socialist organisation in the USA). During the period in which we worked on these notes we saw the streets across America – in cities as in rural areas, North and South, East and West – inundated by a social and political movement, an anti-racist revolt which displayed even insurrectionary traits. Against this, there stood opposed a deaf reaction, a clownish yet also sinister gangsterism, casting off its “neo-populist” vest to don the sadly more recognisable clothes of fascist adventurism. These latter developments – a harbinger of further, unpredictable surprises that will need to be watched carefully over coming months – moreover shed light on the theoretical importance of Fraser’s discourse on socialism.1

Indeed, her discourse rests on a rethinking of the “classic” separation – internal above all to a certain “orthodox” Second and Third-Internationalist Marxism – between the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction, meaning, to be more precise, a separation between the realm of that which Marx called the “immediate process of production”2 and the conditions of the reproduction of the social relations which make this process possible. In Fraser’s theoretical vocabulary, the main conditions of possibility for the “immediate process of production” are “state power, nonhuman nature, and forms of wealth that lie outside capital’s official circuits, but within its reach”.3 As Fraser has argued elsewhere, it is necessary to go beyond the “hidden abode of production” from Volume I of Capital, which disclose the foundation of the exploitation of waged labour, and uncover what they conceal: namely, their “free-riding on unwaged carework, public goods, and wealth expropriated from racialized subjects and non-human nature”.4

Authoritarianism, racism, sexism, the predation on the natural environment – in short, all that which the American rebellion of recent days has, in large part, risen up against – would, then, be internal to capitalism, in a way that even Marx fell short of grasping. Yet, if that is how things are, then every struggle against the present socio-historical formation, every “socialism”, must change telos: the quite proper need to transform the “relations of production” – a task which cannot be put off any longer – must be combined with the need to change the “relations of reproduction” in what we could call, in all-embracing terms, a democratic direction.

In our view, this is a highly important theoretical-political move. For more than the late-Honnethian and late-Habermasian line, it reconnects with the still part-unexpressed potentialities of the “Western Marxist” turn launched by György Lukács already in the 1920s with the publication of History and Class Consciousness. But what, to be more precise, does “Western Marxism” mean? Perhaps it means that position which, in the era of Stalinist counter-revolution, deserted the field of economic analysis and political intervention to take refuge in the – in some aspects – self-referential practice of philosophical reflection?5 No, for if that really were the case, then there would be no cause to bring Fraser’s discourse on capitalism and its overcoming by socialism onto this field. For us, rather, “Western Marxism” is that theoretical-political current which extends the inversion between abstract and concrete which dominates the concept of the “commodity” – where a thing does not have value because it satisfies a need (the concrete) but only because it can be alienated according to determinate quantitative relations (the abstract) – to the society’s whole set of reproductive and representative operations.

In Western Marxism, therefore, is rediscovered the thesis, asserted and reasoned in various ways, that society is a totality. Society is not, then, an edifice with separate floors, such as the “orthodox” theory regarding the relationship between the economic base and ideological superstructure had suggested. Instead, its elementary cell – the commodity – projects its inversion even within the way in which consciousness establishes connections with reality and seeks to make it intelligible. This means that, whereas for Second and Third-Internationalist “orthodox” Marxism, “consciousness” is a mere reflection of the economic-productive structure, for which reason the sphere in which it is nourished – the sphere of social and ideological reproduction (as harboured by the state, by the means of communication, etc.) – is an appendage of the economic-productive structure, for Western Marxism the transmission mechanism between the circulation of value and the reproduction of the overall social capital is devoid of any significant breaks. Circulation, reproduction and representation have thus been articulated in a complex, but for this no less unitary hierarchy.

For illustrations of this, we can look, for instance, to Ernst Bloch in his The Principle of Hope, where he proceeded from the analysis of the expectant emotions to the analysis of their perversion in the heads of those (e.g. the petty bourgeoisie) that suffer under the iron heel of monopoly capital; or to Lukács, as he reprised the intuitions of History and Class Consciousness in The Ontology of Social Being, concerning himself with the objective forms of coordination between the various teleological positings of individuals (the division of labour, language, law, and world market); to the second Althusser, who developed the – for us, already “Western-Marxist” – theoretical model of Reading Capital in the work on “ideological state apparatuses”; and to the Frankfurt School, which gradually took form first with the Horkheimer and Adorno of Dialectic of Enlightenment and then with Habermas right up to The Theory of Communicative Action, studying the instruments of the “colonisation” of the life-world.

Fraser’s “Western Marxist” vein is, however, enriched by her own deep relationship with the key theses of Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation. More particularly, from this book Fraser borrows the idea that the economic and productive institution is always embedded in a wider socio-political context, even when – as in capitalism – there is a tendency to abstract from this dependency. Which is to say, the same abstraction which leads to the formation of what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities”: labour, land, money. Capitalism renders possible the production of these commodities precisely by abstracting from their general conditions of existence – from what are, in Fraser, the “conditions of reproduction”:

The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them. […] Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance. None of them is produced for sale. The commodity description of labor, land, and money is entirely fictitious.6

As can easily be recognised, we are very close to Fraser, here: labour is confused with life itself, being an activity that stands out from the backdrop of other human activities (those which Fraser would call “care” activities); land becomes property only through its being-unbound from nature; and finally, money is governed by state power relations. If we want to advance the transition to socialism, Fraser tells us, then all these abstractions, all these separations, will have to be rethought, unveiling their artificial character, and redesigned, by subjecting them to democratic regulation. Socialism must be not only “Marxian” but also “Polanyian”.

As we have suggested, Fraser’s initiative is largely to be welcomed and deserves further support. Nonetheless, it is undermined by a fundamental difficulty, which threatens to have ruinous effects also on the bid to set out a new outline of the transition to socialism. The fact that this is a difficulty which also cuts across the various fractions of contemporary critical thought, among neo-Marxist thinkers as among post-Marxist ones – especially the Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – makes it no less serious. To what are we referring, here? We are speaking about the fact that, once the importance of extending struggles from the point of production to the point of realisation, distribution and reproduction has been registered, we also need to establish the mechanism for the articulation of the former to the latter. While in these thinkers, struggles at the point of reproduction are added to the struggles at the point of production – either imbuing them with a political character they would otherwise not have (Laclau-Mouffe) or bringing into play their missing presupposition (Fraser) – for the Marx of Capital the class struggle at the point of production is already itself based on a fundamental condition of reproduction. Which? Marx refers to such a condition of reproduction as soon as he begins to explain the reason why “labour-power” presupposes the reduction of its own capabilities to a commodity:

By labour-power or capacity to labour is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description. … The exchange of commodities of itself implies no other relations of dependence than those which result from its own nature. On this assumption, labour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law.7

In short – as Marx tells us just before this – labour-power is a “special commodity”8 precisely because the workers have become members of the sphere of circulation, have become free and equal owners of labour-power and thus able to pursue their own advantage in an autonomous manner, exchanging their own services for money.

But how is labour-power produced and reproduced; how was it possible for this to become part of the essentially modern sphere that is the sphere of the circulation of commodities? As Kōzō Uno has highlighted in a work of marvellous conceptual precision (Principles of Political Economy. Theory of a Purely Capitalist Society), the process of the production and reproduction of labour-power is a peculiar process because it is

a consumption-process of material things, not a production-process properly speaking. That is to say, labour-power as a commodity must be reproduced in the private life of the workers, not in the process of material production. However, the conversion of labour-power into a commodity compels the reproduction 'as a commodity' of labour-power through the individual consumption of wage-earners with the recurrence and regularity characteristic of a production-process. Thus labour-power is 'produced' by the consumption of material things just as material things are produced by the consumption of labour-power. Such an inter-relatedness, however, must not obviate the distinction between the processes of production and consumption. Labour-power and the means of production are sometimes said to be 'productively consumed,' though this does not make the production-process of material things their individual consumption-process.9

In short, labour-power is such not despite but precisely by virtue of the fact that it is reproduced outside the sphere of production, in family or private life. One can certainly imagine – Kōzō Uno says, alluding to the “Fordist-Keynesian” attempt to socialise control over the cycle of consumption and savings10 – a regulated reproduction of labour-power in the private sphere. But in any case, this remains but an analogy. If it were literally true that labour-power is produced like any other commodity, in a production process, the determination of the value of labour-power would have to conform to that of any other commodity. And, for Marx, as is well-known, the value of a commodity is measured by the socially necessary labour time to produce it. Yet, in

the case of labour-power, its value is determined indirectly by labour-time spent on the production of the means of livelihood required for the reproduction of labour-power. But this involves the practical problem of determining what quality and quantity of the means of livelihood should be deemed necessary for the reproduction of labour-power.11

The socially necessary labour time to reproduce labour-power is fixed indirectly and not directly, as in case of any other commodity. For it depends on an activity – the consumption of goods – which takes place outside of production, in family or private life, indeed, in the sphere of reproduction. This is demonstrated, Kōzō Uno continues, by the variable unfolding of the determination of labour-power’s value: because it depends on an activity – i.e. the satisfaction of its own needs – which capital does not directly control, it is on this terrain that there takes root labour-power’s attempt to assert its particular prerogatives, free and equal, in the sphere of circulation. Labour-power – naturally in consonance with the cycle of the overall social capital – negotiates the value of its bodily and cognitive capabilities, of which it is the owner, in relation to what it has cost to replenish these capabilities, on each occasion choosing to narrow or widen the scope of its own needs that may be satisfied. So, as we can perhaps now better see, if one wants, like Fraser, to remain in some sense faithful to Marx’s theoretical acquisitions, it does not make much theoretical and political sense to make any firm distinction between struggles at the point of production and at others at the point of reproduction. Struggles at the point of production are characteristically conditioned by the way in which the sphere of reproduction is structured.

This allows us, finally, to resume our line of argument regarding the “Western Marxist” rethinking of the modern relationship between production and reproduction. Our thesis is that, in order to understand this relationship, it is necessary to bring the sphere of circulation into play right from the outset. So long as production and reproduction remained bound to one another in precapitalist societies, access to the means and objects of labour was mediated in political-juridical or religious terms, with the consequence that the extraction of surplus-value was anchored to directly political-juridical or religious etc. means of appropriation – which thus took place directly at the level of the community. But, when the productive and political community were pulverised thanks to the entrance of capitalist production relations, expropriating the worker of his traditional relations of possession, the individual began only to have access to the means of production by way of the market, as a member of the sphere of circulation (the seller or buyer of commodities and labour-power). And it is on this basis that the sphere of production itself began to reconfigure its tasks: if, in precapitalist modes of production, this sphere operated in function of an extra-productive appropriation, and was thus isomorphic to the direct domination over the producers, now in capitalist modernity it must seek to re-conjugate the free and equal individual of the sphere of circulation to the opposed – because antagonistic – production relations. With the disappearance of the communities that had immediately related him to the sphere of production, the individual is now prepared, moulded, and trained to participate in this sphere (e.g. by way of the family, school, job training courses, administrative processes, public opinion, etc.).12 The emergence of the sphere of circulation thus provides what the Hegel of the Phenomenology of Spirit would have called the “passing over into its opposite”:13 from the freedom and equality which connote the sphere of circulation, we pass to the asymmetries and inequalities immanent to the relations of production. Moreover, this cannot be an abrupt and immediate reversal, which would lead the socio-historical formation to collapse. Between these two spheres there must intervene – to construct a field of at least partial resolvability of their tension – the sphere of reproduction, with its promotion of the hierarchies of race, sex and nation, the same hierarchies which we tragically grew to know so well especially in the course of the twentieth century. In this schema, social reproduction remains – as in the old precapitalist modes of production – the hub of relations of domination, but now of an indirect domination which prepares for or ratifies the exercise of the power relations in the sphere of production.

This is also the basis on which we should acknowledge the need to reflect on the channels flowing between circulation, production and reproduction, and on the totalisation process of bourgeois society as a process marked by inversions. There are discrepancies between circulation, production and reproduction, i.e. between the normative promises of the first, the harsh inequalities of the second and the need for the democratic state (still today, the mean institution of reproduction) on each occasion to transform the obedience required on the basis of the relations of force into a willing obediencei.e. because it is each time provided amidst political conflict, obtained in a wider discursive confrontation. It is by intervening in these gaps, exploiting these tensions, that socialism can win back what we see as its most peculiar aspect, namely, that of being the product of the self-critique of bourgeois society and bourgeois reason.14

This article is republished from http://filosofiainmovimento.it/, translation by David Broder

Giorgio Cesarale is Professor of Political Philosophy at Ca' Foscari University of Venice

                                                                                                (25 June 2020)


Bunnyfrosch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

  • 1. European attention toward the tumultuous developments in US democracy following the great crash of 2007-8, with both its advances (the Sanders campaign in the 2016 Democratic primaries) and its failures (the Obama presidency) has generally been shamefully low. And it is worth noting: in a world in which the far East is letting off the spark of economic transformation and the far West the spark of political transformation, old Europe instead distinguishes itself with its fearful, torpid reaction to “the ever-present threat of total catastrophe” (Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Continuum, London, 2002, pp. 243-244).
  • 2. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. III, text from Marxists.org
  • 3. Nancy Fraser, ‘What Should Socialism Mean in the Twenty-First Century’, in Socialist Register 2020: Beyond Market Dystopia. New Ways of Living, 56, 2020.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. This is the position of Perry Anderson (in Considerations on Western Marxism, NLB, London, 1976) and, all things considered, also of Domenico Losurdo, in Il marxismo occidentale. Come nacque, come morì, come può rinascere (Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2017). The difference is that this latter work adopts a position within a framework purged of all anti-Stalinist polemic, and rather more characterized by the contrast established with an “Eastern” Marxism itself above all interested in developing the productive forces.
  • 6. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, Boston, 2001, pp. 75-76. In the Polanyi debate in recent years – of which Michele Cangiani provides a fine account in Quale Karl Polanyi? (http://ilrasoiodioccam-micromega.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/2020/03/06/quale-karl-polanyi/) – the dilemma is: mit oder gegen Marx? Cangiani clearly explains why that line of interpretation that sets Polanyi at a distance from Marx does not hold water.
  • 7. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Chapter 6, cit.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Kōzō Uno, Principles of Political Economy. Theory of a Purely Capitalist Society, trans. by Thomas T. Sekine, The Harvester, Brighton, 1980, p. 62.
  • 10. Meaning, an organised, state-regulated capitalism; Fraser herself has provided a great deal of apt reflection on the effects which this has on the family, for instance in ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’, New Left Review, no. 100/2016, pp. 99-117.
  • 11. Kōzō Uno, Principles of Political Economy. Theory of a Purely Capitalist Society, p. 62.
  • 12. It is starting from here that it becomes possible to rearticulate a constructive relationship with the theme of “biopower” introduced by Michel Foucault. Pierre Macherey demonstrated this in his ‘The Productive Subject’ (available at https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/the-productive-subject/). See also, on this, Jacques Bidet, Foucault With Marx, Zed Books, London, 2017, pp. 19-57, and Mark Neocleous, Administering Civil Society. Towards a Theory of State Power, MacMillan, London-New York, 1996.
  • 13. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018, p. 147.
  • 14. Even if redefined in these terms, as a self-critique of bourgeois society and reason, the category “socialism” remains the prisoner of major ambiguities, which we will shortly return to address. If we wanted to adopt a less theoretically and politically compromised category we would have to speak of “transitional social formations” (Charles Bettelheim).