Nancy Fraser and Counterhegemony

Josefina L. Martínez

February 27, 2022

A presentation from the Fourth International Marxist Feminist Conference.

There are multiple dimensions to the crisis of capitalism. They are expressing themselves in an uneven way, both temporally and spatially: There are elements of economic crisis, political crisis, reproduction crisis, geopolitical crisis, and also environmental crisis.

Capitalism has created disasters for the majority of humanity, as we see with the pandemic. There is an economic dimension, with inflation and an energy crisis affecting different countries, as well as the supply chain crisis, which is generating bottlenecks in ports and shortages of certain products, leading to factory closures and thousands of layoffs.

The comrades on this panel have spoken about these profound crises. There is a crisis of political representation, and elements of what Gramsci called an organic crisis, giving rise to new political phenomena on the Right and on the Left. At this conference, several feminists have drawn attention to the crisis of social reproduction. Although it is nothing new, it has been aggravated by the pandemic, and it affects women in particular. Finally, we are also facing an ecological crisis, as thousands of young people mobilizing around the world have been pointing out. Capitalism, with its drive for rapid and ever-increasing profits, undermines the conditions of its own long-term reproduction, because it depletes resources and destroys the environment.

As the mass movement in Chile showed, there has been a return of the class struggle, with tendencies toward revolt. This has opened a space for social and political combat. The strategic debate about how to overcome capitalism is becoming more urgent.

In this context, I would like to open a brief debate with two feminist theories: social reproduction theory (SRT) and feminism of the 99%, which have gained a lot of influence in recent years. There are different positions within SRT. There is an autonomist wing, whose most prominent figure is Silvia Federici. There are also theoreticians who define themselves as part of SRT’s Marxist wing, including Cinzia Arruza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Sue Ferguson, and others.

You might also be interested in: Social Reproduction Feminism or Socialist Feminism?

We can say that the most interesting aspect of SRT is its focus on the “necessary but contradictory relation of the reproduction of labour power to capitalist accumulation,” in Sue Ferguson’s words.1Sue Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto, 2020). In other words, it allows us to unravel one aspect of the relationship between class and gender under capitalism. It helps explain the role of invisible and unpaid tasks performed in the home, mostly by women, for the reproduction of labor power. This includes the replenishment of daily energy and the care of people who are outside the active labor force (such as the elderly, children, and the sick). It also includes the generational replenishment of labor power.

It is important to highlight that many women workers who perform wage labor for social reproduction (such as nurses, teachers, or childcare workers) are on the front lines of the class struggle. At times, they have managed to establish very strong links of solidarity with other sectors of the working class — when parents support a teachers’ strike, for example, because it is about their children’s education. In this sense, these sectors have an important “hegemonic capacity,” if they have a militant orientation that seeks to consciously unite the working class and the poor masses. (This is something that union bureaucracies will always attempt to block.)

I recognize that these contributions enrich Marxist feminist theory, to better analyze the increasingly feminized composition of the working class. Yet there are issues I consider insufficiently developed or ambiguous within SRT. For example, there is the very definition of the sphere of social reproduction. Does it include workers in fast food restaurants? What about delivery and transportation of food? If so, how can it be delimitated from the sphere of production and circulation? But there are additional, even more important debates, which are related to political strategy.

Feminism of the 99%

The term “feminism of the 99%,” inspired by movements such as Occupy Wall Street, calls for a mass movement against the richest of the rich. But, as has often been pointed out, this formulation has a big problem: the ruling class composes more than 1% of the population and within the 99%, there are social sectors with contradictory or antagonistic interests. In imperialist and semicolonial countries, the 99% incudes small and even some big capitalists, as well as the upper middle classes. But it also includes the urban poor, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and, of course, the working class with all its layers. The strategy of the 99% does not define which social sector is going to speak for this mix. Is it even possible to have a social alliance of this type in which the interests of the working class and the oppressed are prioritized?

We believe that it is not. To explain, I am going to take some more concrete definitions by Nancy Fraser in her most recent interventions, and especially in an interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin magazine. Fraser takes up her definition of “progressive neoliberalism,” which refers to the confluence between feminism and neoliberalism embodied by the Democratic Party in the U.S. and Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK. She points out that “the progressive-neoliberal bloc combined an expropriative, plutocratic economic program with a liberal-meritocratic politics of recognition.”

She contrasts this with reactionary neoliberalism — these are the two faces of neoliberalism. In the context of a general crisis of neoliberalism, there have emerged reactionary populism (Trump, Bolsonaro, etc.) and progressive populism (Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn, Sanders, etc.). Fraser’s proposal for feminism of the 99% is to develop the perspective of the latter — to articulate what she defines as a “counter-hegemonic bloc” to neoliberal hegemony. She writes,

Progressive populism [is] the likeliest candidate for a new counterhegemonic bloc. Combining egalitarian redistribution with nonhierarchical recognition, this option has at least a fighting chance of uniting the whole working class. More than that, it could position that class, understood expansively, as the leading force in an alliance that also includes substantial segments of youth, the middle class, and the professional-managerial stratum.

Thus, the formulation of “the 99%” becomes more concrete.

The experiences of Syriza in Greece, applying the austerity plans of the Troika; or of Podemos in the Spanish State, as ministers of an imperialist government alongside the social democratic PSOE; or of the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal, should already make it clear that left populism is not a real alternative to reactionary populism. All the “progressive populists” do is subordinate themselves to the “progressive neoliberals” in a chain of adaptations to the political regimes. Another paradigmatic case is that of Bernie Sanders, whom Fraser cites as an example. Sanders spoke of socialism but subordinated himself to the Democratic Party establishment and ended up campaigning for Joe Biden, a representative of Wall Street and multinational corporations. Let us not forget further pearls from Sanders, such as voting in the Senate for measures that penalize local governments that defund the police (something demanded by Black Lives Matter). In other words, in contrast to what Fraser claims, Sanders offers neither redistribution nor recognition.

It is necessary to incorporate another dimension to the debate, which is the imperialist character of the states in question. Calling for policies of redistribution within the framework of imperialist states that plunder the resources of other nations, carry out military occupations, and defend colonial policies, is dangerously close to welfare chauvinism. It is an attempt to re-create the policies of postwar social democracy, which sought to build social pacts with unions on the basis of some kind of income distribution while continuing to steal the rest of the planet’s resources.

Divisions and Separations

The debate on feminism of the 99% seeks to resolve a strategic problem: the internal division of the working class into different sectors, as well as the divisions between the working class and other oppressed groups. But the solution that it proposes, the “counterhegemonic bloc,” is nothing more than a zero-sum policy. It is a trap to attempt to put political representatives of the imperialist bourgeoisie (even if they are its most left-wing representatives), managers, and small capitalists into the same coalition as precarious, women, and immigrant workers. In such a combination, workers and the oppressed can only lose, because they are forced to drop or water down their demands so as not to “frighten” or “scare off” people from the upper middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie.

In a recent pamphlet, The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born 2Nancy Fraser, The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born (New York: Verso, 2021). This pamphlet includes the interview linked above., Nancy Fraser argues that progressive populism needs a “strategy of separation.” Two major series of splits are necessary, she says. First, the women’s movement must split from the politics of meritocratic liberal feminism, young people must split from the idea of green capitalism, and anti-racist movements must split from the multicultural trappings of neoliberalism. Second, the traditional working class must split from the conservative and xenophobic policies of reactionary populism (by “traditional working class,” she means the sector of workers who are being pummeled by the crisis, along with other sectors we could call the “losers of globalization”). By uniting these sectors, Fraser says, progressive populism could have a solid social base to push through policies of redistribution and recognition.

Fraser is right that there is an open political debate between different forces about how to configure political camps, class coalitions, and political representations. We agree that a “strategy of separation” is necessary. But what needs rigorous separation are the organizations of the working class from all policies and parties that attempt to administer capitalism. We must separate our program from all those forces that seek conciliation with the big and medium capitalists, and that propose to settle for a few crumbs within the framework of capitalism. This separation, this reconfiguration of the political scene, would be the foundation for building a powerful, united force based on a program that includes transitional economic, social, and cultural demands, and that aims to question private property. This would start from the immediate demands of the working class, anti-racist movements, young people, and the oppressed. In other words, only on the basis of class independence will it be possible for the working class to develop a hegemonic strategy in order to lead all the oppressed.

This would allow us to overcome the polarization that exists in different sectors of the global Left. On the one hand, there are sectors who talk about class but do so in a sectoral or economistic way; they do not question the reformist bureaucracies in the workers movement. On the other hand, there are sectors who lean on identities, as part of the postmodern cultural turn, as if movements of the oppressed were separate from the struggle against capitalism; these sectors dilute the role of the working class.

To conclude, Fraser is correct that the crisis cannot be resolved in a “politicized” way. There are structural issues that correspond not only to a certain model of capitalist accumulation but also to capitalism itself. In this sense, it will be necessary to move toward some kind of post-capitalist society. But two questions remain unresolved.

First, we see a certain revival of positions that could be called “postcapitalist” and put forward the idea of overcoming capitalism. This is a symptom of an important change in modes of thinking as we exit the period of capitalist triumphalism. Nonetheless, tendencies that we could call neo-utopian are dominant, because the postcapitalist alternative is not formulated on the basis of strategy — which implies a concrete struggle to articulate material forces — but as a profession of faith or a moral aspiration. As the flip side of this abstract postcapitalism, on a day-to-day basis, its adherents end up supporting left reformist or “progressive populist” projects, in Fraser’s terms.

Now, someone might object: Well, we have to do something before communism arrives … Of course. But the point is not whether we do something, but what we do. Should we intervene in the struggles for partial demands, for democratic rights? Should we work in the social movements, in the unions? Should we run in elections with left-wing candidates? Of course we should. But we should not treat these tactics as if they were ends in themselves. As Rosa Luxemburg argued, the strategy of reform is not a slower road to revolution. Reform, turned into a strategy, actually creates a wall against revolution. There is no way to advance gradually, with small changes and improvements, until socialism arrives. We can call such a strategy neo-Kautskyism (in reference to the theoretician of the Second International, who ended up opposing Luxemburg and Lenin). This strategy, which sectors of the Left are attempting to revive, led to tragedies throughout the 20th century. And today, as we see in the case of the neoreformist projects, the strategy leads only to the Right. We have to do something. But what must be done, in our opinion, is to prepare for moments when the class struggle is on the rise — when everything is turned on its head. Starting now, we need to build revolutionary organizations with roots in the working class, the women’s movement, and the youth. In this way, at key moments, we can put forward a perspective of open struggle against the capitalist state — we can point out a revolutionary path.

Second, when we talk about postcapitalist alternatives, we should not start from zero — we should not erase all historical experiences in one stroke. A century after the Russian Revolution, we need to learn from an event that showed the real possibility of an alternative to capitalist barbarism. A system of workers’ democracy, based on workers’ councils or soviets, expropriated the capitalists. This was the basis for steps to plan production according to the needs of the producers. This went along with other measures that aimed at liberating women from the burdens of domestic labor in the home, by socializing some of these tasks. To recover this tradition, of course, it is necessary to dissolve the amalgam of Stalinism and communism, which still resonates with many people and confuses them when we talk about communism.

We are part of another tradition — an anti-Stalinist and revolutionary one. We want to recover what Leon Trotsky wrote about women in the Transitional Program of 1938, when he pointed out that opportunist and conservative organizations of the workers’ movement are concerned only with the upper layers of the working class, and that they ignore young people and women workers. Today we could add that they also ignore immigrants and people who suffer racist oppression. That is why we have written on our banners: Open the road to the youth! Open the road to people oppressed by racism and imperialism! Open the road to women workers!

First published in Spanish on November 13, 2021 in Contrapunto.

Translation: Nathaniel Flakin


Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State,