Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, by Nancy Fraser

Gwendolyn Beetham on a collection of essays that remind us that an alternative to global capitalism’s inequality is badly needed

August 1, 2013

As a gender scholar, I was thrilled to be asked to review Nancy Fraser’s latest book, which Verso insists will become “a landmark of feminist thought”. Fraser is one of the most influential feminist voices in the critical theory field, and her work has long been a staple of gender studies programmes. I was therefore disappointed to find that this book is not a “new” work, but rather a collection of essays that have been published before, some of them numerous times. Now that I’ve stated what the book isn’t, I will spend the rest of the review talking about what it is; in a work spanning three decades, there is plenty to discuss.

Reading through this collection of essays, the earliest of which was published in 1985, I was reminded of the aphorism (often attributed to Mark Twain), “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” – the present echoes through even the oldest pieces. For example, chapter 3’s genealogy of “dependency” in US welfare programmes mirrors the austerity debates in the UK today – with “freeloading immigrants” in Britain replacing the “black welfare queens” of the 1990s in the US. Readers in the UK will find the return to Fraser’s early work illuminating, given the current flux. In this sense, the timeliness of this collection cannot be overstated, reminding us that an alternative to global capitalism’s discouraging levels of inequality is desperately needed.

Given this immediacy, Part II, encompassing the “cultural turn” of the 1990s, feels somewhat detached. A chapter recounting Fraser’s theoretical headbutting with Judith Butler – an argument played out ad nauseam in feminist circles – feels particularly so. Those familiar with Fraser’s work may not be surprised that this is the most disconnected of the book’s three parts. Fraser blames the “cultural turn” on many of feminism’s shortcomings, arguing that identity politics shifted the focus from economic critique and resulted in a failure to address the advent of neoliberal capitalism (an argument described at length in Part III).

The timeliness of this collection cannot be overstated, reminding us that an alternative to global capitalism’s discouraging levels of inequality is desperately needed

The second part’s focus on the theoretical, to the detriment of the practical, is illustrative of my largest bone to pick with this book. A collection of Fraser’s work needn’t solely take this tone; especially when it is advertised as “anticipating a new…phase of feminist thought and action” (my emphasis). Fraser herself is no stranger to “action”; she has been on the front lines of welfare debates in the US and the subject of numerous interviews linking her academic work to the activism of feminists and the Left, the inclusion of which would have provided examples of the “action” promised by the publisher.

Beyond this critique, Fortunes of Feminism goes a long way in bringing together Fraser’s substantial body of work on redistribution and recognition which, taken collectively, shows that the devaluation of care work has long been the greatest factor in capitalist maldistribution and women’s oppression. Scholars interested in these themes will find this book invaluable – or at least they should. Which brings me to my final point. Fraser contends that contemporary “feminism…must join with other anti-capitalist forces, even while exposing their continued failure to absorb the insights of decades of feminist activism”.

Above all, this collection demonstrates – in extensive detail – Fraser’s persistent engagement with critical theorists’ failure to take gender, race and sexuality seriously. Her life’s work is dedicated to showing that this failure affects not only women but everyone. It is unacceptable that, even while Fraser’s work is essential to feminist theory, certain strands of critical theory perpetually ignore gender.

Importantly, and as Fraser maintains, failing to take these issues seriously theoretically translates into a failure to do so in practice. In order to win the fight against global capitalism, we cannot afford to continue to look the other way. Critical theorists and anti-capitalist activists take note.

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