In her new book, Cannibal Capitalism, Nancy Fraser offers an expansive history of capitalism, proceeding from mercantilism and 19th-century theories of laissez-faire to 20th-century state-organized capitalism and, finally, to today’s financialized capitalism. Taking a comprehensive view allows Fraser to capture how gender oppression, racial domination, and climate destruction are not incidental to capitalism but embedded in it. She also calls for a broader understanding of capitalism that isn’t exclusively focused on private property, the means of production, wage labor, and accumulation. The world we live in, she writes, is an “institutionalized societal order” like feudalism. We spoke with Fraser about her new history, how to understand the multiple intersecting crises of capitalism, what Covid revealed about our health care system, and more.
Paul Smith: What does it mean to look at capitalism as more than an economic system?
Nancy Fraser: If we don’t see capitalism broadly, if we continue to think of capitalism as synonymous with the economy, we’ll imagine that the only relevant form of social conflict is the class struggle of workers at the point of production. This obscures the connection with other forms of conflict— ecological struggle, anti-racist struggle, feminist struggle around issues of care and social reproduction—which will always appear secondary. That position is both empirically false and politically counterproductive. [With this mindset], we’ll never build the kind of broad coalition that we need in order to get to the root of all these problems.
Paul Smith: With this in mind, what distinguishes contemporary capitalism from its forms in the past century?
Nancy Fraser: I would say that the current form of capitalism is almost trying to return us to a stage of capitalism before the social democratic or New Deal era, in which there was very little public responsibility for all the difficult, energy-consuming, time-consuming, skill-requiring, thought-requiring activities that it takes to nurture and sustain people and communities.
Paul Smith: Given what is arguably a series of ongoing and accelerating crises, what would it take for the left to be better prepared for the next crisis? Is capitalism in the US headed for terminal decline?
Nancy Fraser: I don’t think it’s about the next crisis; I think it’s about how we’re going to get a resolution of this crisis. It’s a general crisis, not a sectoral crisis—not just about the economy or ecology or care, but all those things intertwined and exacerbating each other. The root of all this is the design of a social system that licenses a small group of profit-driven institutions and actors to cannibalize the bases of their ability to make profits. I don’t expect this problem to be resolved soon. As Gramsci said, “The old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Trumpism and all its cognate political forms throughout the world are all morbid symptoms, and they’re pretty plentiful at the moment. There’s no guarantee that the good emerges victorious. There are some very promising, potentially emancipatory political formations that are emerging, but they’re less powerful at the moment than the bad ones in most places.
Paul Smith: You assert that “[the battle against] the coronavirus served as a textbook vindication of public power.” Yet it seems to have been a victory for the private sector as well, and health care in the US remains in dire straits.
Nancy Fraser: One thing that Covid has shown us is how depleted and disinvested the public health care infrastructure in the US and elsewhere has become over the last 40 years of neoliberalization. Capital has turned over the lion’s share of the world’s health infrastructure resources to private hands—from R&D to manufacture and production, distribution capacity, and so on. The result is a disaster. It means that all these utterly essential resources are in the hands of actors who have zero interest in the common good and whose sole driving interest is shareholder value. They’re operating on the basis of motivations that are completely at odds with those that need to be governing the sphere. This brings us back to socialism: When it comes to basic goods, like healthrelated therapeutics and infrastructure, we have to take them outside of the logic of the market. Those are some of the lessons that we should have learned from Covid.