U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“The Cunning of History”; Or, the Unintended Negative Consequences of Good Ideas

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!

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Sounds like an interesting article, Andrew! Thanks for calling it to our attention.

    Although I haven’t yet had a chance to read it, let me hazard a couple thoughts based on your description of it (what, after all, are Teh Internets for?)….

    1) Fraser’s line of thought runs parallel to some interesting new work that was discussed at a “State of the Field” OAH panel on the history of conservatism that I attended yesterday (more on the OAH to follow in a full post, fwiw). Bethany Moreton (and others) are arguing that many aspects of Christian right social conservatism, far from being examples of What’s the Matter With Kansas?-style false consciousness, are actually intimately connected with the economic structures of neoliberalism.

    2) I wonder a bit about the causal arrows in Fraser’s piece, i.e. first comes second wave feminism, then comes the neoliberalism that coopts it. I take it this is also the structure of Chiapello and Boltanski’s argument: dissent challenges capitalism; capitalism coopts dissent. But might these things be happening simultaneously? Tom Frank (who seems to coming up a lot in this comment…though more positively this second time) argues in The Conquest of Cool that the “radical spirit of 1968” was always already commodified, that corporations were selling cool well in advance of the late 1960s. To put my cards on the table, might second wave feminism be as much an unwitting early product as an unintended later shaper of post-Fordist capitalism?

  2. This veers away from the actual topic of the thread, but I would take issue with Ben’s characterization of Frank’s argument in The Conquest of Cool. Rather than arguing that “commodification” and “co-optation” occurred earlier than previously thought, it is a major project of that book to complicate, if not contest, the very terms themselves. While he does write that the book is “a study of co-optation,” he suggests at the same time that the term itself is difficult to use in any rigorous fashion.

    His argument, Frank writes, tends not to “uphold the myths of authenticity and co-optation…[I]t was and remains difficult to distinguish precisely between authentic counterculture and fake: by almost every account, the counterculture, as a mass movement distinct from the bohemias that preceded it, was triggered at least as much by developments in mass culture (particularly the arrival of The Beatles in 1964) as changes at the grass roots. Its heroes were rock stars and rebel celebrities, millionaire performers and employees of the culture industry; its greatest moments occurred on television, on the radio, at rock concerts, and in movies. From a distance of thirty years, its language and music seem anything but the authentic populist culture they yearned so desperately to be.”

    The major problem that I have with Frank as a writer is his tendency to atmospherically gesture in a direction rather than posit an argument with a falsifiable conclusion. I think, therefore, that he would find the claim that “there is no such thing as co-optation” to be too strong to represent his views. Nonetheless, he does go pretty far down that road.

  3. Thanks, Mike. I actually don’t think we disagree that much about what Frank argues (and I agree with your criticism of his stuff, too). I didn’t mean to suggest that Frank argues for “early cooptation,” but rather that he suggests that commodified cool (though perhaps Frank wouldn’t put it like that) was around even before the counterculture blossomed.

    As Mike suggests, the larger point–and here I’m very sympathetic to Frank, whatever his shortcomings–is that the relationship(s) between “authentic” oppositional/alternative culture and “coopted” mass culture are complicated and one does not simply precede the other…nor are they always so easily distinguished from each other. And this sort of perspective might complicate what I take to be (since I haven’t read it yet 😉 ) Fraser’s argument about the relationship between (authentic) second-wave feminism and (coopted) neoliberal pseudo-feminism.

  4. Thanks for the comments Ben and Mike. The argument about how the new Christian right is connected to neoliberalism is a fascinating one and I’d like to read more about it. I’ve been reading up on the 1970s debates over the family, leading into the 1980 White House Conference on the Family, and you’d be amazed at how conservatives mixed anti-statism with their pro-family arguments. But this doesn’t in and of itself refute Frank’s false consciousness thesis, but rather suggests a shift from early twentieth-century social conservatism, which was more likely to blame crass capitalism than the state.

    As far as whether Fraser sees second-wave feminism as prior to or part and parcel of neoliberalism, that’s a good question. I don’t want to get her argument wrong, but I believe she might venture the latter, even though feminists can hardly be blamed for not noticing how their arguments were serving as a rationale for a new form of capital accumulation.

    Ben, I’m looking forward to reading about the OAH–and wish I was there.


  5. I just spent the day at an interdisciplinary conference called The Black Women and the Radical Tradition (though with a strong history presence). It was nice to read this post afterwards–it helped me understand some of the tensions at the conference. More later when I’m less tired.

  6. I agree with Ben on the question of Fraser’s periodization. I can’t decide, though, which perspective is more damning for second wave feminism – the idea that it “paved the way” for neoliberalism, or simply served as a direct expression of it…

    Either way, it seems clear that a focus on socialist feminism (a variety of feminist activism that generally resists the “wave” paradigm) is in order.

    Finally, is Fraser really suggesting “a possible shift away” from neoliberalism? This seems to me a bit premature and unlikely.

  7. This is a very interesting article. Fraser is arguing that the feminist movement has contributed to the problems women face today. I find this to be very interesting and will research it in the future. I am very interested in learning more on this subject in relation to women and equality and how this led to more problems for women. I am also interested in reading more on the 1980 White House Conference on the Family to see how this corresponds to what Fraser states. I think it is fascinating to look at feminism and the problems that women face today from this viewpoint. Women seek equality and in that search, more problems were created as the tools were taken from them and placed into another’s hands. . Again, thank you for an interesting post.
    –Sarah J.

  8. We, the German political magazine DIE GAZETTE (http://www.gazette.de) would very much like to translate substantial parts (practically the second half) of this text in German and to publish the translation in our forthcoming issue June 2012.
    Would you have the kindness to grabnt us your permission to do so?
    Thank you in advance:
    Fritz Glunk

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