Interview with Nancy Fraser by Tatiana Llaguno

Translation: L’entrellat

TATIANA LLAGUNO | I’d like to start by sharing a problem: at times, the ecological appears to get separated from the economic or political question. The lack of a general framework becomes both an analytical and a political problem. However, in your work, we find a way of theorizing capitalism that brings the different realms together. Rather than an economic system, you propose understanding capitalism as an institutionalized social order in which we have economic relations, but also a number of “background conditions” (nature being one of them). I’m thinking about your article “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode” published in the New Left Review in 2014. At the time, you suggested that to reduce capitalism to the economic is to repeat the system’s own economistic self-understanding and you called your proposal an expanded conception of capitalism. Can you tell us what this new conception entails and why you felt the need to make this analytical move?

NANCY FRASER | I was moved to do it, in part, because it really did seem that it was time to return to the question of capitalism (which had been very far off the agenda in most critical theorizing and even in a lot of political organizing). In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and movements like Occupy or Indignados, it was very clear to me that there was a kind of deep system-wide crisis unfolding. More importantly, it seemed that this crisis couldn’t be addressed piecemeal with some people focusing on the economic, others on the political, others on the ecological, and so on. The appearance of a general crisis of the whole social order led lots of people to talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism again, and that already showed me that my own instinct was shared widely, that there was a widespread intuition about the need for a more overarching way of connecting all the different strands of the unfolding crisis. Both as a young political activist and later as a philosopher and critical theorist, the master concept for thinking about the social totality had always been capitalism, so I was very happy to see it returning. 

But because I thought this crisis was really multi-dimensional and couldn’t be theorized as an economic crisis only (although it certainly had that strand), I began to think we needed to widen our idea of what capitalism was. When I went back to Marx (an unavoidable move for anybody who wants to think about capitalism), I felt the need to re-situate the account he gave us in Das Kapital. To be honest, I don’t feel that anything I have to say at this point is necessarily anti-Marxian or refuting Marx. But I did want to re-situate the conversation, bringing these so-called “background conditions” more into the center. These “background conditions” – which I take to be nature, the political order, and social reproductive and dependent labor – aren’t necessarily absent from Marx’s work, but they are in the background, and aren’t systematically worked up in a conceptual way. Marx clearly understands that social reproductive work is essential to the reproduction of the working class; that nature (in the sense of raw materials and even in a broader sense) is absolutely essential to capitalist production; that the state and political institutions are fundamental (just consider how he pays attention to factory laws when discussing the length of the working day in volume 1); and that slavery and colonialism also play a very important role. In sum, he understands that all these things are present and important for the system. However, for the purposes of the analysis, he wants to zero in on the exploitation of wage workers in modern industry. I think that was immensely clarifying. But now it’s time (and maybe it was always time) to situate it in relation to the ongoing expropriation of unfree labor and reproductive labor, and the ongoing guzzling up of nature (without regard to its reproduction or to the damages that are offloaded onto the planet), etc. 

What I meant by an expanded view of capitalism was a view that had taken all these dimensions into account, as well as their interactions and crisis-tendencies, a view that acknowledged capitalism’s institutional separations between the economy and its “background conditions”: therefore, my suggestion that capitalism is an institutionalized social order. We certainly need to keep Marx’s own account of how capitalism as an economic order works (the dynamic of accumulation and so on), but also bring that into relation to its political, social and ecological preconditions. 

TATIANA LLAGUNO | Recently, you’ve defended the need to move beyond vague references to “humanity” or to “anthropogenic causes” in our understanding of environmental issues. Instead, you underline the importance of grasping capitalism’s differentia specifica in mediating our relation to nature. In your latest article, ‘Climates of Capital,’ you argue that the difference between capitalism and other social orders is the non-accidental, structural character of the link between ecological crisis and capitalist society. Could you elaborate on this?

NANCY FRASER | I should preface this response by saying that my account of this contradiction mirrors and has parallels in the different dimensions that I bring into relation. Although we are focusing on ecological contradiction and crisis, something similar could be said regarding care work, for example.  Basically, my idea is what I call the four Ds logic of the contradiction, which I encapsulate in the notions of dependence, division, disavowal and destabilization. Together, these four concepts help us picture how accumulation in the economy works in relation to these background conditions and how it works in the form of a crisis tendency, a contradictory self-destabilizing process. Going back to my expanded conception of capitalism, I’d say the interesting point is that once you bring these so-called background conditions into visibility, then you can pose a question that otherwise disappears from the agenda. What is the relation between the capitalist economy and its background conditions? 

The appearance of a general crisis of the whole social order led lots of people to talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism again, and that already showed me that my own instinct was shared widely

My general answer is that it’s a relation of contradiction, a perverse relation, a relation that installs crisis tendencies or proneness to crisis in several dimensions, at the heart of the system, and in the system’s very structure. It installs that sort of crisis tendency not just for economics, but also for social reproductive relations, for politics, and of course, for the environment. On the ecological front, the essential idea is that capitalism devolves the responsibility for organizing production to a class of owners and investors and, furthermore, encapsulates their responsibility within a profit driven logic of accumulation. The discussion about production is, in the broadest sense, a discussion about our relation to nature, about how human labor and nature (which includes us but also includes non-human beings and processes) relate. That nexus was called a metabolic interaction by Marx. In other words, production is absolutely central for thinking about how humans, through their labor, change nature, relate to it, change themselves in the process, and so on. What capitalism does is it gives the people who are in charge of that relationship – who have the power to shape it and determine its basic outlines – a motive to trash nature, to offload and ignore the costs of ecological reproduction, to use and to take as much as they want, as fast as they want, with no responsibility for replenishing it. Of course, as time goes on, damages accumulate, unpaid reproduction costs accumulate, nothing is fixed, nothing is repaired. And naturally, in time, those unpaid ecological reproduction costs, those damages, pile up. 

This is a logic that brings us back to the four Ds. The first D is for dependence, because the capitalist economy (like any economy) depends upon a relation to nature, so production is, first of all, dependence. The second D is for division, because capitalist societies tend to divide the realm of the human and of the economic from the realm of nature in such a way that it looks as if it’s something over there that we don’t have to worry about, something completely separated from what we’re doing. The third D is for disavowal, as the capitalist economy forswears any responsibility for what’s done, it disavows the damage it does, as well as any responsibility to fix it. And when you put it together, it all leads to the fourth D, destabilization. It’s a system that, by its very logic, self-destabilizes the whole relation between human beings and nature in the larger sense that includes us, as well as the non-human world. This is inherent, structurally induced, and from what I see, there is no other sort of social order that has this kind of dynamic in it. There have been plenty of pre-capitalist and non-capitalist societies that have trashed nature, but not in this inherent way built into the system’s DNA, which is a way that cannot be corrected, that cannot be overcome without real fundamental transformation of the system itself. That’s what’s specific to capitalism. 

TATIANA LLAGUNO | In your work, related to the notion of “background conditions,” there is the notion of “boundary struggles,” which you define as the struggles that occur to redefine and readjust the dividing lines between the different domains. How do you apply it when dealing with environmental problems? How do you map the boundaries between ecological struggles and struggles over other realms of social life such as reproductive labor, expropriated labor, and exploited labor? What are the intersections between them and how does this connect to your call for a trans-environmental eco-socialism?


The work I’ve done on this expanded theory of capitalism aimed at elaborating these multiple crisis tendencies. For purposes of analytical clarification, I wrote on each of them separately. But that’s clearly a form of analytical abstraction. In the real world, all these things are intertwined, and your question is very helpful in putting those intersections into focus, which is also my intention when I use the term trans-environmental. Basically, my argument on the need for a trans-environmental movement is an argument against the idea that we could have a sort of single-issue environmental struggle, a single-issue eco-politics, which would somehow repeat the gesture in traditional Marxism that says that class struggle over exploitation in the factory is the primary thing, and that everything else can be put to the back. 

There’s a tendency (and it’s understandable given how dire the ecological situation is and how fundamentally urgent it is to do something) among some environmental activists to say, “drop everything else, and just do this one thing.” And I want to object to that on two different grounds. First of all, from an analytical point of view: you simply cannot abstract one of these contradictions from the others, they are all caused by the nature of the system. It’s not as if the nature of the relationship between the economy and nature tells us the whole story about this social order, we have to look at how that relation is also crosscut by the relation between production and reproduction, between the state and the market, and between the core and the periphery. All of these are in play at once, so even from a theoretical-conceptual point of view, the focus on one thing is wrong. It’s also a disaster from a practical-political point of view, because not everyone is situated in the same way in this very complicated, internally differentiated, social order that is capitalism. Different people, or different groups of people, have different experiences of what is existentially most urgent for them. For people on low-lying Pacific islands of course it’s the rising seas, but for people in the Rust Belt, in deindustrialized zones (who do not live in great environmental conditions either, but who are a little less exposed) the experience of the crisis is different. There, the crisis of jobs or of social reproduction might appear to be more urgent. And the point is that none of these groups can possibly generate enough social power to protect themselves from whatever they think the direst threat is. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential to create a very broad coalition, a counter hegemonic political block that can do this. Environmental activism, in this sense, has to become trans-environmental so that it can join forces with those for whom the crisis of work is fundamental, or with those for whom the crisis of care is fundamental, or with those for whom racism, problems around migration, etc., are fundamental. All of these things do in fact intersect. 

Part of what I try to do in my work is to show how environmental questions are necessarily infused with questions of communities’ social reproduction, of political power, of imperialism and so on. One good thing about all the talk today about the Green New Deal (whatever may be problematic about this or that specific version of it), is that it’s a sort of statement that recognizes that you have to articulate an eco-politics that’s concerned about the standard of living of working-class populations, for whom a certain caricature of environmentalism appears to be the death of their jobs and of their income.

Environmental activism, in this sense, has to become trans-environmental so that it can join forces with those for whom the crisis of work is fundamental, or with those for whom the crisis of care is fundamental, or with those for whom racism, problems around migration, etc., are fundamental. All of these things do in fact intersect.

The Green New Deal (even though perhaps it’s too focused on the national framing), is nevertheless trying to say, “we can do this in a way that creates good jobs for people.” That’s a recognition of the kind of intersections I’m talking about. And the same is true of movements that focus on environmental racism, where there’s an attempt to show that not everyone is in the same boat, and that we have to pay attention to the relation to nature; to how historically racialized populations were subjected to certain forms of expropriation and imperialism, how this is especially dangerous, and how it occurs for non-accidental reasons. The idea behind trans-environmentalism is an idea that applies also to feminist struggles, anti-racist struggles, and anti-imperialist struggles. The main point goes back to what I think is the key idea behind an expanded conception of capitalism, which is the multiple crisis tendencies that come to boil together at once. Also, part of what I’m trying to do is to show why a single-issue environmentalism can only be an environmentalism of the rich. In the same way that I tried to show, in earlier works and interventions on feminism, why a single-issue feminism could only be a class-specific bourgeois feminism.

TATIANA LLAGUNO | You usually engage in theoretical analysis as well as in the complicated task of translating social problems into the political realm. In that sense, you’ve argued that the left should distance itself from what you’ve called “progressive neoliberalism,” admitted advantages in a left-wing populist strategy, and made calls for a “feminism for the 99%.” When it comes to environmental politics, we also face a choice between a variety of tactics and strategies. It seems fundamental to reject capitalism’s own response through markets and finance, but also to admit (like Adam Tooze did in a recent article) that social democratic politics of emergency remain, to say the least, unclear in the face of disaster. The left tilts between calls for degrowth, Green New Deals, the prospect of a ‘big green state’ (Daniela Gabor), and even proposals for ecological-Leninism (Andreas Malm). How do you assess the current political debate and where do you identify the most promising methods?

Since I see the ecological contradiction as deeply embedded in capitalism’s DNA, I think (and I might sound like Mouffe, Laclau, or even Carl Schmitt) that the most important thing is to divide the field between capitalist and anti-capitalist versions of eco-politics in such a way as to isolate the green capitalists as much as possible, or to force everyone to choose a side. Are you for green capitalism? Or are you for some kind of anti-capitalist eco-politics? I think that to some degree (or many) the currents you mentioned already think of themselves as anti-capitalist. Clearly, the eco-Leninism of Malm belongs in that category. The Green New Deal might be more ambiguous, but at least in the Democratic Socialists of America version of it, it’s clearly intended to be anti-capitalist. A lot of struggles that focus on Indigenous movements and environmental racism would also describe themselves as anti-capitalist. And the same is the case with those coming from degrowth movements. Part of the problem is that in some cases the self-description as anti-capitalist is more of a wish or rhetorical move. It may be a heartfelt desire, but not really be connected with any clear sense of what anti-capitalism means. Part of what I’m doing is trying to articulate a sense of what I think that should mean. My wish is to put it out there in the hope that, however the translation process works, some people will pick it up and maybe reinterpret what they are doing in such a way as to give some more content to this term anti-capitalism. 

My take is that, from a strategic point of view, what we’re looking for is an anti-capitalist block of political forces that are trans-environmental. In relation to that, there are two different things that I’d want to do. First, I’d want to separate as many of the eco-activist forces from green capitalism as possible (not all of them will come over, obviously, but there are some promising chunks that could) and I’d want to do the same for people who are struggling in one way or another over social reproduction, over issues of gender, sexuality, education, healthcare, housing, jobs, wages, and migration. In each case, what we want is a split from the progressive neoliberals who are essentially trying to hegemonize strands of those struggles to keep them within the capitalist fold, with more or less success. Second, we’d want to unite all these different dimensions of the crisis: the ecological dimension and that of social reproduction with the anti-racist, anti-imperialist dimension, that of Indigenous rights and migrant rights, and the more traditional working-class dimension, and so on. 

My idea is that we start with what is needed to change the system, at least in our minds, and then we figure out where there are social forces on the ground that are either already in motion, or are likely to get moving, and that could find their way into such a coalition. I’m not an activist now and I see my contribution as being in creating a theoretical conception that could possibly serve as a map of the social order and of the state of play. People could locate themselves, get a better sense of what their position is in the overall system, including the overall landscape of social struggle, what their relation is to other social forces on the map, how they can recalculate where and who their potential allies are, and where they need to draw the line and say no; now it’s we “Schmittians,” now it’s us versus them.

if we have an expanded conception of capitalism, then we also need an expanded conception of what the working class is

TATIANA LLAGUNO | Finally, you are currently working on a project that brings together “three faces of capitalist labor.” Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ interpretation of abolition as a labor movement in Black Reconstruction, you aim to bring together three forms of labor (exploited, expropriated, and domesticated) as well as the labor struggles associated with them. Would you consider nature’s labor as a fourth form of labor? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of including it? And could environmental movements be interpreted as political movements in charge of transforming the very conditions under which nature is forced to do its work?

That’s a fascinating question. We do have a very important eco-Marxian theorist, Jason W. Moore, who takes exactly that position and talks about the work of nature, along with the work of production, and the work of reproduction among humans. I can see why this makes a certain amount of sense and I don’t have a firm, strong argument to say absolutely not. But my hunch is to not do that, at least not now in the very early stages of this project. It’s possible that at a later stage, I’ll take up that question in a direct way and think my way through it, but I’m not there yet. For now, it’s on hold and I’m going to just go with my intuition that what’s going to be most illuminating for the moment is to focus on human labor. I’m aware that there is literature about animals too, as being part of the working class (like Jason Hribal’s well-known article), and I understand that this sort of thinking is right in some sense. Moore goes even further than that. But to a certain extent, I can see it becoming rather implausible as a strategy. I believe that if we’re talking about a critical theory that has an interest in emancipation and is trying to shed some light, at least, on the whole question of praxis, on what is to be done, then it makes sense to focus on the social actors that we can most immediately envision bringing together. For that reason, my idea at the moment is rather to think about the expanded global working class, because if we have an expanded conception of capitalism, then we also need an expanded conception of what the working class is. 

The working class is not simply the class of “doubly-free” proletarians that sell their labor power in exchange for wages, it includes that, but it also includes those whose labor is essentially expropriated from them in one way or another, who find themselves subject to forms of coercion that go beyond the forms of coercion within the wage nexus. For example, all those forms of unacknowledged household labor, the labor done in grassroots communities that reproduce social bonds, as well as the labor within public institutions that concerns social reproduction. For now, I want to see how far I can get by focusing on these three forms of labor – exploited, expropriated, and domesticated – which are already embedded in my expanded view of capitalism, as the background conditions for wage labor. I do get inspired by Du Bois’ very poignant idea, when he says that the enslaved Black labor on the plantations of the Global South is the “founding stone” of the global economy. It’s such a different claim from Marx’s. Du Bois is already implying that there’s a fundamental structural division within the global working class between the doubly free proletarian and those who aren’t free enough to be doubly free. This is a very interesting idea, which led Du Bois to notice that there were fundamentally two labor movements which failed to recognize one another. The fact of their failure to recognize one another and to find a way to fight together has been of enormous historical consequence, not just in the 19th century, but globally, and up to our own time. Du Bois also points out that even the Black working class is divided structurally in this way.

why not also see movements that have to do with social reproduction, whether they are feminist, communalist, or some other, also as focused on another absolutely indispensable category of labor within capitalism?

He directly references “the vast and dark masses” in India, China, the Caribbean, Africa, and so on, so his argument is not only about American slavery. 

Du Bois, like Marx, understands very well that there is also social reproductive labor, but he’s not pulling it out, he’s not doing anything with it. It remains scattered in observations here and there, and he’s been rightly subjected to feminist criticism for that (I’m thinking of people like Angela Davis, who adore Du Bois, but also bring out something he doesn’t). I’m interested in going a step further and asking:  if anti-racist, anti-imperialist struggles can be understood as a kind of unacknowledged labor movement, then why not also see movements that have to do with social reproduction, whether they are feminist, communalist, or some other, also as focused on another absolutely indispensable category of labor within capitalism? Thus, my suggestion of talking about three labor movements that haven’t yet been able to understand themselves as reflecting structural divisions within the global working class, which, in this expanded sense, includes all this socially necessary labor. That’s the idea of this project, and because I want to focus on the labor movements – which I think of as the movements of human beings that are concerned with the work they perform – I’m leaving off to the side the work of nature. It’s possible I’ll come back to it, either to say, “I don’t think it should be included, and I don’t think that’s the right approach,” or to include it. At this point, I remain agnostic