Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History

This is an exercise in historicization.  This lecture concerns the relation between feminism, the movements of second-wave feminism, and the recent history of capitalism.  My aim is to try to shed some light on where the feminist movement stands today in the current crisis of capitalism.

So, I want to tell a story that has essentially three parts, each of which corresponds to a moment in a recent history of capitalism.  The first moment concerns the beginnings of second-wave feminism in the context of what I’m going to call “state-organized capitalism,” and here I want to chart the emergence of second-wave feminism out of the anti-imperialist New Left, posing a radical challenge to the pervasive androcentrism and sexism of state-organized capitalism.  That’s the first moment.

Second, I want to look at the process of feminism’s subsequent development in a dramatically changed social context of rising neoliberalism.  Here, I want to look not only at the movement’s undeniable and extraordinary successes but also at the disturbing convergence of some of its ideals with the demands of this new form of capitalism, post-Fordist, disorganized, transnational.  Here, I want to pose the question whether second-wave feminism has unwittingly supplied a key element of what Boltanski and Chiapello call the New Spirit, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme.”

Finally, in a third moment, I want to consider a possible reorientation of feminism today in the present context of capitalist crisis and political realignment at least in the United States, which could — let me emphasize could, it’s not guaranteed, but could — mark the beginnings of a shift away from neoliberalism to some new form of social organization.  So, in this third moment, I want to examine the prospects for reactivating feminism’s emancipatory promise in a world that is now being rocked by the twin crises.

OK, so, three moments in the history of capitalism — state-organized capitalism, neoliberalism, and the present crisis of capitalism.  How can we understand the recent history of feminism in relation to each of those three moments?  In a nutshell, I want to give you a sort of summary of this argument, my hypothesis here.  I’m going to argue that what was truly new about the second wave was the way in which it wove together, in a critique of androcentric state-organized capitalism, what we can today understand as three analytically distinct dimensions of gender injustice: an economic dimension, a cultural dimension, and, now I want to add, an additional third political dimension.  Second-wave feminism, in other words, subjected state-organized capitalism to a wide-ranging, multi-faceted scrutiny in which those three dimensions of critique intermingled freely.  In this way, feminists generated a critique that was simultaneously ramified and systematic.  In the ensuing decades, however — this corresponds to my second moment, the neoliberal moment — the three dimensions of critique became separated — from one another and, equally importantly, from the critique of capitalism.  With the fragmentation of the feminist critique came the selective incorporation and partial recuperation of some of its strands by neoliberalism.  Split off from one another, in other words, and from the societal critique, the anti-capitalist critique that had integrated them, second-wave hopes were conscripted in the service of the project that was deeply at odds with the larger, holistic feminist vision of a just society.  In a fine instance of what I’m calling here the cunning of history, utopian desires found a second life as currents that legitimated the transition to a new form of capitalism.  This is the Boltanski-Chiapello argument but now adapted to this feminist argument.

So, I’m going to then elaborate this argument, as I said in three steps — first by reconstructing the second-wave feminist critique of androcentric state-organized capitalism as integrating concerns that I associate today with three perspectives of justice, which I have called redistribution, recognition, and representation.  Secondly, I want to sketch the coming apart of that constellation and the selective enlistment of some of its strands to legitimate neoliberal capitalism.  And, third, I want to try to weigh the prospects of recovering feminism’s emancipatory promise today, in this present moment of economic crisis and possible political opening.

Nancy Fraser is Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research.  This lecture was delivered at the conference of the French Association of Sociology in Paris in April 2009.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the lecture.  See, also, Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History” (New Left Review 56, March-April 2009).

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