Feminism’s Balance Sheet

Feminism’s Balance Sheet

Jeffrey Williams: Nancy Fraser and Feminism’s Balance Sheet

Is feminism an instrument of neoliberalism?

That?s the question that the political philosopher Nancy Fraser asks in a New Left Review article called ?Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History.? While second-wave feminism was a progressive project, Fraser makes the uncomfortable point that it has all too readily been assimilated by neoliberalism. We no longer keep women in the home?no, now everyone has to work!

Fraser traces feminism from the 1960s, under what she calls ?state-organized capitalism? or the Keynesian welfare state, to the 1990s, under neoliberal capitalism or post-Fordism, which seeks to shed the control of the state. Second-wave feminism rebutted the ?economism? of the state, or its framing justice largely in terms of redistributive taxation; ?androcentrism,? which assumed a family wage based around men, thus reinforcing gender inequality; and ?étatism,? rejecting the bureaucratic rigidity and paternalism of the welfare state.

However, under neoliberalism, she believes that ?second-wave feminists effectively traded one truncated paradigm for another,? shifting from economism, focused on distribution, to identity politics, focused on recognition. For Fraser, we need a combination of both for social justice. It also oversaw a shift from androcentrism, ?replaced by the norm of the two-earner family,? which is sold under ?a new romance of female advancement and gender justice.? And its critique of étatism often took its actions out of the normative political sphere.

Fraser believes that the ideals of feminism were hijacked?as she puts it, ?The dream of women?s emancipation is harnessed to the engine of capitalist accumulation??but she notes that second-wave feminism has one feature in common with neoliberalism: both propound emancipatory projects. Neoliberalism claims to free us too.

Fraser holds out hope for a third moment, when the ideals of feminism might be realized, speculating that the current financial crisis ?mark[s] the beginning of neoliberalism?s end as an economic regime.? As one sign of evidence, ?The election of Barack Obama may signal the decisive repudiation?of neoliberalism as a political project.? This I find doubtful, unfortunately?and in fact it is debunked by Mike Davis in an article in the same issue of NLR, where Davis traces Obama?s continuation of Clintonian neoliberal policies. From where I sit, it seems that current policies such as the bail-out, the effective self-regulation of banking and other corporations, and the privatization of public services like education are a shoring up of neoliberalism rather than its abandonment.

Fraser is a major philosopher of social justice and commentator on feminism, pragmatism, and contemporary cultural theory, probably best known for her distinction between redistribution and recognition (her last contribution to Dissent was in the 1999 symposium on 1989). While rooting herself in a socialist tradition, Fraser drew on Max Weber to argue that status as well as wealth was crucial to social justice. A just society should remedy both maldistribution and malrecognition. Her synthesis of the two concepts was a response to the fissures of the culture wars, seeing identity politics dialectically rather than binarily (see ?From Redistribution to Recognition?? in NLR 212 [1995]; see also her 2003 Redistribution or Recognition?, written with Axel Honneth). More recently she has revised her synthesis, adding a third term, representation, to account more directly for politics (see ?Abnormal Justice,? Critical Inquiry 34 [2008]).