3/1 Seminar, Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History”
Guest Writer: Jungmin Kwon

Friday, April 15, 2011

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On Tuesday, March 1, 2011, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and the Unit for Criticism hosted a seminar with Nancy Fraser of The New School. Fraser is a Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar.]

Nancy Fraser’s “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History”
Written by Jungmin Kwon (Institute of Communications Research)

The seminar on March 1 addressed Nancy Fraser’s article, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,” published in the New Left Review (2009). The discussion that followed focused primarily on the applications and possibilities of her argument which anticipates the macrosocial analysis of the contemporary economic crisis which she outlined in her February 28 lecture on Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.

In her introductory remarks, Fraser explained that the financial crisis that began in 2008 has exerted a huge impact on her intellectually, motivating her to periodize our recent history including second wave feminism—the topic of her article. She explained that she hoped to frame the relationship between capitalism and feminism and to imagine the possibility of a post-neoliberal moment in the future. Both the lecture and the article point out that feminism and neoliberalism share a common hostility toward traditional authority; emancipatory movements such as feminism are therefore vulnerable to the allure of a free market economy.

Most of the seminar consisted in open question and answer. One set of questions was about the implications of the periodization in her writing. Some participants expressed the concern that Fraser’s historical framework is limited in its ability to explain details and dynamics beyond its particular sociocultural context. Another participant questioned the concept of “crisis” as a discourse, observing that there has already been a transition from meta-theories to minor issues. Finally, the construction of Westphalianism was criticized because of its complicities with the history of Western imperialism.

Professor Fraser agreed that her discussion of what happened to second wave feminism and capitalism cannot be universalized. Nonetheless, she pointed out that we still should be able to glean “big patterns” that will allow us to imagine an open future. To this end, she wanted to provide a model for intellectuals and activists since “there is no way through to transformation except by actually thinking about criticizing and struggling against capitalism.”

A few participants then moved to explore her concept of an “open future”: How open is the future, they pondered? What is politically possible? What are we supposed to do? Fraser acknowledged that the Left has not made much progress recently as emancipatory desires and actions are often co-opted and rechanneled by capitalism. In her article, she hoped to resituate second wave feminism in relation to a potential upsurge of the Left. Using the example of the Tea Party’s appeal, she argued that Left politics can also be participatory, not bureaucratic.

Building upon Fraser’s belief in possibility, one seminar participant pointed to the “idea of the public” in Fraser’s article and argued that the crisis of capitalism in fact offered a chance for an open future. It is unnecessary to be pessimistic because, with so many boundaries broken, actors have a number of resources to help them navigate the flow of possibilities.

Appropriately, the seminar closed with another return to Polanyi. Professor Fraser was asked what she found in Polanyi to inspire her own longstanding commitment to the importance of struggling for redistribution along with recognition. Fraser answered by reinterpreting Polanyi’s conceptualization of the foundation role of market. According to Fraser, Polanyi appreciates that the power of the market in capitalism and recognizes that the state’s power must be mobilized for redistribution to take place. Needless to say, markets should be regulated and situated differently from their position in the current neoliberal geography. For her, the most important thing was not any single system, either state or market, but the relationships and connections among multiple systems.


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