Nancy Fraser’s powerful new essay, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History” (New Left Review 56: Mar/Apr 2009) is a template for how to trace ideas—and the use of ideas—across different contexts. Fraser’s article, a history of how second-wave feminism was co-opted by the forces of capitalist accumulation, asks “whether second-wave feminism has unwittingly supplied a key ingredient of what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call ‘the new spirit of capitalism’” (98). She writes: “The cultural changes jump-started by the second wave, salutary in themselves, have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society” (99).
Fraser introduces her historical argument by succinctly and effectively describing the feminist critique of the Fordist, state-dominated capitalist system that characterized the global economy during the 1950s and 1960s. In that context, the feminist critique was not only necessary, but also liberating, especially the unmasking of patriarchy internal to the idealized “wage earner.” In other words, state-dominated economic regimes that promoted families with only one wage earner simultaneously empowered men as against women (not to mention whites as against blacks and other minorities). But the premise of this critique was not simply about allowing women the “right” to also earn wages, as Fraser makes clear: “Far from aiming simply to promote women’s full incorporation as wage-earners in capitalist society, second-wave feminists sought to transform the system’s deep structures and animating values—in part by decentering wage work and valorizing unwaged activities, especially the socially necessary carework performed by women” (105).
In short, Fraser lauds the goals and critical theories of second-wave feminism, especially that of the socialist variant, which combined gender analysis with a systematic critique of capitalism and imperialism. Thus, in analyzing how feminism was co-opted by capitalistic forces, she is not laying blame, rather, she is attending to the “cunning of history.”
Second-wave feminism had unanticipated consequences that can hardly be considered liberating on a grand scale. “With the benefit of hindsight,” Fraser argues, “we can now see that the rise of second-wave feminism coincided with a historical shift in the character of capitalism, from the state-organized variant… to neoliberalism. Reversing the previous formula, which sought to ‘use politics to tame markets’, proponents of this new form of capitalism proposed to use markets to tame politics” (107).
In the context of this shift from a Fordist to Post-Fordist regime, Fraser makes a compelling case that “second-wave feminism thrived.” She continues: “What had begun as a radical countercultural movement was now en route to becoming a broad-based mass social phenomenon. Attracting adherents of every class, ethnicity, nationality and political ideology, feminist ideas found their way into every nook and cranny of social life and transformed the self-understandings of all whom they touched. The effect was not only vastly to expand the ranks of activists but also to reshape commonsense views of family, work, dignity” (108).
This was all to the good, right? Not so fast according to Fraser, as the rise of neoliberalism coincided with the rise of identity politics, which took hold of feminist politics. “Claims for justice were increasingly couched as claims for the recognition of identity and difference.” Feminist identity politics tended “to overextend the critique of culture, while downplaying the critique of political economy.” This had practical effects, as feminists worked harder in their struggle to gain recognition from the state or other institutions, as opposed to their earlier struggles, which prioritized more tangible things like the feminization of poverty. This shift to neoliberal identity politics also had theoretical effects. Fraser observes that “in the academy, feminist cultural theory began to eclipse feminist social theory” (108).
Fraser cites Chiapello and Boltanski for helping her think through her larger theoretical framework. In their important book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Chiapello and Boltanski argue that each new epoch of capitalism co-opts the spirit of dissent that challenged the previous epoch. Thus, in the 1970s and 1980s, corporate management theorists acted as a neoliberal vanguard when they sopped up the radical spirit of 1968 and sold it to the masses of New Economy workers. “For Botanski and Chiapello, the new ‘spirit’ that has served to legitimate the flexible neoliberal capitalism of our time was fashioned from the New Left’s ‘artistic’ critique of state-organized capitalism, which denounced the grey conformism of corporate culture” (109). (To extend this further back, in an American context, the Sixties critique of corporate conformism took its cues from 1950s thinkers like David Riesman, William Whyte, C. Wright Mills, and Paul Goodman, not to mention Betty Friedan.)
In the context of such cooptation, the “new spirit of capitalism” incorporated second-wave feminism’s critique of state capitalism. Second-wave feminism acted as an unintentional ideological softener for neoliberalism as women poured into the labor market in numbers never before seen. The following lengthy passage hints at Fraser’s logic in making this argument:
“Our critique of the family wage supplies a good part of the romance that invests flexible capitalism with a higher meaning and a moral point. Endowing their daily struggles with an ethical meaning, the feminist romance attracts women at both ends of the social spectrum: at one end, the female cadres off the professional middle classes, determined to crack the glass ceiling; at the other end, the female temps, part-timers, low-wage service workers and microcredit borrowers, seeking not only income and material security, but also dignity, self-betterment and liberation from traditional authority. At both ends, the dream of women’s emancipation is harnessed to the engine of capitalist accumulation. Thus, second-wave feminism’s critique of the family wage has enjoyed a perverse afterlife” (110-111).
In the United States, this “perverse afterlife” can be seen in the neoliberal polices of Bill Clinton. “In the new climate,” Fraser contends, “it seemed but a short step from second-wave feminism’s critique of welfare-state paternalism to Thatcher’s critique of the nanny state. This was certainly the experience in the United States, where feminists watched helplessly as Bill Clinton triangulated their nuanced critique of a sexist and stigmatizing system of poor relief into a plan to ‘end welfare as we know it’, which abolished the Federal entitlement to income support” (111).
If Fraser is correct, and I believe she is, then she is illustrating the saddest of ironies: feminists, unwittingly, helped pave the way for legislation that has had a profoundly negative impact on women. Cunning indeed, you history!