Should we view contemporary anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and feminist struggles as unrecognised labor struggles? Nancy Fraser uncovers the hidden ties among gender, race, and class by linking them to the three forms of capitalist labor: exploited labor, dispossessed labor, and domestic labor.
Nancy Fraser’s Benjamin lectures were inspired by a striking claim made by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1935 masterpiece, Black Reconstruction. Characterizing abolition as a labor movement, Du Bois held that US history would have been fundamentally altered had the anti-slavery forces been united with movements of free white wage workers. For Du Bois, the failure of these “two labor movements” to recognize one another squandered the chance to build a labor democracy and set the United States on the road to plutocracy.
Fraser’s lectures extended Du Bois’s idea to the present and to the rest of the world. She asked: Can the anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles of our era be usefully viewed as unrecognized labor struggles? And if so, why stop there? Can we view feminist movements, too, as unacknowledged struggles over work in systems built on a gendered separation of paid “productive labor” from unpaid carework?
Elaborating these hypotheses, Fraser argued that capitalist societies rely on three analytically distinct but mutually imbricated forms of labor: exploited, expropriated, and domesticated. She further argued that the historically shifting relations among these three faces of labor constitute the hidden ties among gender, race, and class. Disclosing those hidden ties, Fraser considered the relations among the three labor movements and evaluated the prospects for uniting them.
Gender, Race, and Class through the Lens of Labor: A Post-Intersectional Analysis of Capitalist Society
In these dark times, many who remain committed to social justice sense the need to think big. Dissatisfied with single-issue, identity-based campaigns, they seek larger political paradigms that connect the disparate concerns and dispersed struggles of multiple movements. The term “intersectionality,” hugely popular among feminists and anti-racists, is one important marker of this aspiration.
This lecture aims to advance that integrative project. Returning to large-scale social theorizing, I propose an account of capitalist society that discloses the hidden ties between gender, race, and class. These I trace through the lens of labor, broadly conceived. Departing from received understandings, I argue that capitalist society relies on three analytically distinct types of labor. The first and most familiar is exploited labor, performed by free workers in exchange for wages in for-profit enterprises. Often equated with labor as such and, thus, with “the working class,” exploited labor would not be possible, or profitable, absent the two other types: expropriated labor – unpaid or under-paid and coercively extracted from unfree or dependent subjects who are usually racialized; and the externalized labor of care or social reproduction – chronically undervalued, often invisible, and largely performed by women. By theorizing the entwinement in capitalist society of these “three faces of labor,” this lecture suggests a way of thinking gender, race, and class together, within a common frame.
Labor’s Twisted Histories: Practical Entanglements and Political Fault Lines
In this lecture, I turn from structure to history, examining laboring human beings, situated in space and time over the span of capitalist development. Periodizing that history, I identify four regimes in which the nexus of exploitation, expropriation and externalization is differently organized: mercantilist, liberal-colonial, state managed (or social-democratic), and neoliberal/financialized. For each phase, I map the historically specific relations among the three faces of labor, asking: Who performs each type of work and where? How sharp are the separations among those type of labors – and among those who perform them? What is the relative weight of each in the capitalist world system?
I look, too, at the forms of social struggle and political subjectivity in each phase. Here I ask: How do those who perform each type of labor identify themselves? Do they think of themselves as “workers”, and are they viewed as such by others? Under what banner, if any, do they engage in collective struggle? How, if at all, does each group relate to the others – with solidarity, antagonism, or indifference? My aim is to weave together in one story two different ideas: first, the inextricability of the three forms of labor in capitalism’s history; and second, the forms of misrecognition that have divided those who perform them.
Class beyond Class: Toward a Counter-Hegemonic Politics
The previous lectures have left us with a political conundrum. On the one hand, the three faces of labor associated with exploitation, expropriation, and externalization are functionally integrated in capitalist society. On the other hand, only the first is (widely) recognized as labor; and only those directly engaged in it have organized politically as “workers”. Put differently, the functional integration of the three faces is not matched by any comparable political integration among the expropriated, the externalized, and the exploited. On the contrary, they appear divided in the classical triad: gender, race, and class.
This lecture examines some political strategies for addressing that conundrum. After assessing the merits of intersectionality and “allyship”, I consider two additional proposals, less widely discussed, but at least as promising: first, a proposal to develop an expanded, inclusive, and differentiated view of “the working class,” which includes the expropriated and the externalized as well as the exploited; and second, the related idea, inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois, of conceiving existing struggles against racial/imperial oppression, on the one hand, and against the undervaluation of carework, on the other, as unrecognized labor struggles. These last proposals invite us to see anti-racism and feminism as labor movements, whose claims deserve a central place in a counter-hegemonic bloc, on a par with those of traditional “workers”. And that in turn means rethinking the triad – by envisioning “class beyond class.”
Nancy Fraser is the Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research. She is a leading critical theorist and socialist feminist whose work over the past forty years has addressed issues of power, identity, emancipation, capital, justice, and oppression, especially in relation to the limits of liberalism. Working with the broad tradition of Foucault, Habermas, and the Frankfurt School, Fraser has focused on structural injustice, with attention to the conceptual and ideological underpinnings that sustain it. Her focus is the critique of capitalism, which she conceives broadly, not as an economic system, but as an institutionalized social order, which harbors multiple forms of oppression and crisis tendencies.
Some of her canonical works include Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange with Axel Honneth and Fortunes of Feminism: from state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. More recently, she published Feminism for the 99%: A manifesto with Tithi Bhattacharya and Cinzia Arruzza, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory with Rahel Jaeggi, and The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born with Bhaskar Sunkara. She is currently preparing a new book: Cannibal Capitalism. How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet and What We Can Do About It (to appear in autumn 2022).
„Wir haben der Begriff der Arbeit viel zu eng gefasst“ – Nancy Fraser im Interview mit Raul Zelik, WOZ Die Wochenzeitung.
„Gemeinsamer Arbeitskampf statt Identitätspolitik?“ – Jonas Lang berichtet über die Lecture auf Theorieblog.de.
„Eine Physiognomik kapitalistischer Arbeit“ – Martin Bauer und Jens Bisky berichten über die Lectures auf Soziopolis.
„Wir leben in einer Zeit morbider Symptome“ – Nancy Fraser im Interview mit Deutschlandfunk Kultur.
„Wir müssen die Werte auf den Kopf stellen“ – Nancy Fraser im Interview mit dem Philosohpie-Magazin.
„Der Kapitalismus kannibalisiert seine eigenen Grundlagen“ – Nancy Fraser im Interview mit Zeit-Online.
“Topographies of Kapital. Gender, Class and Nature in Fraser’s Critical Theory” – Caitlín Doherty on Nancy Fraser in New Left Review