2/28 Lecture, Nancy Fraser: "Marketization, Social Protection, Emancipation"
Guest Writer: Ergin Bulut

Thursday, March 3, 2011

[On Monday, February 28, 2011, the Unit for Criticism hosted "Marketization, Social Protection, Emancipation: Re-reading Karl Polanyi in the 21st Century," a lecture by Nancy Fraser of The New School. Fraser is a Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar.]

Nancy Fraser's "Marketization, Social Protection, Emancipation: Re-reading Karl Polanyi in the 21st Century"

Written by Ergin Bulut (Institute of Communications Research)

Per Zsuzsa Gille's introductory remarks, Nancy Fraser proved to offer a nuanced crystallization of Marxist, Foucaultian, poststructuralist, and Habermasian perspectives, as well as an insider critique of feminist theory, especially in relation to the threat of second wave feminism's integration into the neoliberal project, given the latter’s emphasis on choice and freedom. Fraser’s guiding question asked how we understand the crisis of contemporary capitalism, and she argued that our contemporary crisis cannot be thought of in an orthodox Marxist manner. Instead, she suggested that we go back to Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation, and rethink some of his concepts.

”By all means, the crisis of neoliberalism should alter critical theory,” said Fraser. Academics, she argued, have stayed away from grand social theorizing for the last couple of decades because social critique based on capitalism has been labeled reductionist. Fraser cautioned that “with current rates of unemployment and the dire circumstances of recession, the crisis is still alive,” and in this respect the economic dimension of the crisis cannot be ignored, nor can the damage to human and animal ecologies.

Nevertheless, there are other dimensions to the crisis. While Fraser explained the social dimension with reference to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, she vividly described its political nature by taking us to the general crisis of the territorial state, as well as referring to the contemporary crisis of the US, EU, and the institutions of global governance.

It is clear from Fraser’s talk that critical theorizing needs to understand the crisis of global capitalism—but how? Some of the productive questions raised by Fraser include: How do we overcome economistic explanations? How do we expand existing non-economistic theorizing? How do we conceptualize the current crisis by historicizing economy as mediated by culture and geography?

The answer is in rethinking Karl Polanyi's classic work. In Polanyi’s magnum opus, The Great Transformation, the crisis is less about the economy than about ruptured solidarities and degraded nature. From Polanyi’s work we can borrow key concepts and terms, including the disembedded market, the fictitious commodity (i.e., capitalism’s impact on land, labor, and money), and the double movement between marketization and social protection.

According to Polanyi, the proposition of a self-regulating market vis-à-vis a moral and ethical society is not feasible. In disembedded markets, land, labor, and money are turned into fictitious commodities, triggering crisis. As in Marx, these three commodities are crucial for livelihood. To treat them as commodities is to undermine their crucial capacity for reproduction. In other words, the commodification of these three ultimately threatens to undermine capitalism itself.

Polanyi then looks at the response of social actors to the crisis capitalism provokes. People mobilize to protect their commons (land, labor, and money). This is the double movement: the marketization of what ought to be embedded in and regulated by society mobilizes social actors. Though as Fraser made clear, these social controls were and remain potentially reactionary, while marketization has liberating aspects. Polanyi, like Marx, emphasizes struggle but he focuses on forces favoring the market, whereas Marx focuses on cross class movements. In all these respects, Fraser said, Polanyi is a promising response to 21st century capitalism.

For Fraser, neoliberalism amounts to the second coming of the faith in self-regulating markets. Today’s crisis therefore invites the coming of a second great transformation. Indeed, Polanyi is an answer to the crisis, but only, Fraser cautions, if we read him critically. The goal is a new quasi-Polanyian approach that not only rejects economism, but also rejects romanticizing society. One of the flaws of The Great Transformation is its neglect of non-market based oppression. The book mostly focuses on struggles involving the market, but not the struggles and potential harm embedded in society. Therefore we need to embrace Polanyi only cautiously.

Fraser’s revision of Polanyi involves the addition of a third prong to the double movement: in addition to marketization and social protection, she added emancipation. Emancipation is about overcoming domination both in the economy and society. To speak of emancipation, Fraser said, means to introduce something that does not appear in The Great Transformation. Theorizing emancipatory struggles such as the anti-slavery and anti-imperial movements is a step toward overcoming Polanyi’s dualistic thinking, Fraser argued. For while social protection rejects deregulated markets, emancipation rejects all relations of domination.

Toward the end of her lecture, Fraser gave two examples of triple movements: the feminist movement and anti-colonial struggles. Both of these cases illustrate how social protection can result in domination. Emancipatory social movements seek more than regulated markets; they also ask: Are the institutions providing protection oppressive? Is the mode of protection participatory or not?

Fraser also addressed Polanyi’s particular relevance to present moment of crisis and to critical theory more generally. As marketization is championed by neoliberals, protectionism is defended by such diverse groups as nationally oriented unions, religious groups, indigenous movements, and anti-immigrant parties; and emancipatory movements include gay and lesbian movements, among others. Critical theorists should look at these three terms in ambivalence, thinking about the positive and negative aspects of social developments. In other words, the conflict between marketization and protection must be mediated by emancipation, whereas the conflict between social protection and emancipation must be mediated by marketization.

Finally, Fraser underlined the need to rewrite Polanyi in the 21st century with an emphasis on what new ethical battles would look like. These battles would be for the soul of emancipation and for the soul of marketization. They would require the re-alignment of both to social protection and, by doing so, the assertion of a broader understanding of social justice.


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