In what is an important reflection on the political stakes for wider Marxist Feminist theory, Cinzia Arruzza has counselled against the fashionable conflation of racial and patriarchy oppressions within capitalism. Asserting the intersectionality of race, gender, and class is simply not enough in attempting to unpack such oppressions as features of capitalism. Equally an emphasis on relationality can become bland without the capacity to decide on where a relation begins or ends. Significant logical and historical questions can then arise. Is gender oppression a structurally necessary feature of capitalism? Is discrimination based on race in-built into the reproduction of racial capitalism? These are knotty issues that come to prominence and utility when assessing Nancy Fraser’s new book Cannibal Capitalism, the latest text completed in the Past & Present Reading Group. These queries also take us much further in assessing wider contributions within and between Marxism Feminism and Black Marxism.
For Fraser, there is a ‘front story’ to the exploitation of capitalism and a ‘backstory’ based on expropriation. This expanded conception of capitalism, it is argued, takes us beyond the famous hidden abode of production, as posited by Marx. Exploitation transfers value to capital based on “free” wage-labour. Expropriation commonly underpins social reproduction as a necessary background condition for capital accumulation (patriarchy), or is structurally reliant on racism as a constitutive feature of capital accumulation (race), or is an essential feature as a “free gift” of Nature to capital (ecology). Framing the cannibalising tendencies of capitalism is, then, a set of dualisms: economics/politics, production/reproduction, exploitation/expropriation, society/nature.
The distinction between expropriation and exploitation is simultaneously economic and political . . . analytically distinct yet intertwined ways of expanding value (p. 37).
Expropriation, for Fraser, is therefore the overriding in-built feature of capitalist exploitation but it is assigned its own sphere within a set of dualist divisions and separations. According to Fraser, exploitation in capitalism is imbricated or, at best, interrelated with expropriation. However, what is revealed by the differentiation of the spheres is a relation ab extra between the ontological foreground and background conditions. The external relations of such dual-systems theorising can be schematically presented thusly:
My assessment is that all this is rather at odds with Marx’s dialectics, especially on primitive accumulation that avoids binate separations in its method of abstraction. After all, ‘Liverpool grew fat on the basis of the slave trade. This was its method of primitive accumulation’, to the extent that generally, ‘the veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal’. Is there not here already an expanded and relational conception of the hidden abode of production? Politically, Fraser’s framework developed in Cannibal Capitalism (Chapter 1) then aims to take us through the ‘boundary struggles’ that lie across the exploitation/expropriation division, or class struggles at the point of production and its bonds with racism (Chapter 2), social reproduction (Chapter 3), ecology (Chapter 4), and democracy (Chapter 5). A final main chapter on socialism in the twenty-first century reinforces the dual-systems thinking on production as distinct from social reproduction, economy distinct from polity, exploitation distinct from expropriation, and society distinct from nature (p. 145). The final call is for a radical reimagining of these boundaries and an expanded conception of socialism.
For my commentary there are two issues to highlight. The first can be anticipated and raises a problem with Fraser’s dual-systems theorising and her emphasis on the institutionalised social order of capitalism as a series of separations between the structures of race, patriarchy, ecology, and capitalism. This is perhaps a problem that pervades Fraser’s critical theory of capitalism, as argued by Chris O’Kane. The second flows from these binary divisions and returns to the issue raised at the beginning of this review as to the question of the in-built raced and gendered features of capitalism.
On the binary dualisms, I have a wider set of ontological concerns about the separations induced in differentiating production and social reproduction, exploitation and expropriation, society and nature, or the political and the economic. To cite Fraser:
To speak of capitalism as an institutionalised societal order, premised on such separations, is to suggest its non-accidental, structural imbrication with gender domination, ecological degradation, racial/imperial oppression, and political domination―all in conjunction, of course, with its equally structural, non-accidental foreground dynamic of (doubly) free labour exploitation (p. 20).
One of the problems with this dualist theorising from Fraser is her invocation of Ellen Meiksins Wood on the separation of the economic and the political in capitalism. To take Fraser’s words: ‘In capitalist society . . . economic power and political power are split apart; each is assigned its own sphere, endowed with its own distinctive medium and modus operandi’ (p. 121). But rather than economic and political power held as a theoretical dualism, or ‘split apart’, Wood is actually arguing something quite different. Capitalist exploitation based on appropriation and coercion take on the appearance or differentiation of spatially separate spheres between the market-mediated conditions of commodity exchange (exploiting “free” wage-labour) and the specialised coercive political instruments of state power (the public sphere of the state). The stress here is not on a dualism but a unitarian approach to analysing the social form of surplus extraction and appropriation under capitalism. To consult Wood directly, from Democracy Against Capitalism:
To speak of the differentiation of the economic sphere in these senses is not, of course, to suggest that the political dimension is somehow extraneous to capitalist relations of production. The political sphere in capitalism has a special character because the coercive power supporting capitalist exploitation is not wielded directly by the appropriator and is not based on the producer’s political or juridical subordination to an appropriating master.
Put differently there is the appearance of separation between the “economic” and the “political” in capitalism, but in all senses they remain internally related as the economic rests firmly on the political within capitalist relations of production. Moreover, breaking the appearance or differentiation of the “economic” and the “political” in capitalism is essential to Wood’s class politics. After all, the aim is to make the unity of these spheres abundantly apparent and to reveal that the locus of power on which capitalist property rests is ultimately the state.
It strikes me that these subtleties are lost in Cannibal Capitalism and how Ellen Meiksins Wood aims to avoid positing social relations as external to one another. Fraser’s philosophy of external relations additively attempts to link politics and economics, exploitation and appropriation, production and reproduction, society and nature. Yet this seems highly at odds with the ‘remapping’ of social reproduction theory evident elsewhere—led by Tithi Bhattacharya, Susan Ferguson, or David McNally—that seeks to dialectically revitalise the multiple oppressions of class, race, and patriarchy through a philosophy of internal relations, a genuine movement of antagonisms ab intra comprising a social totality. Equally, given that ‘background’ carework for Fraser is located outside the value-accumulating circuits of the economic ‘foreground’ (p. 56), she is clearly out of kilter with the value theory of inclusion led by Alessandra Mezzadri.
That brings me to questioning the in-built raced and gendered features of capitalism. As Fraser herself asks: ‘Is capitalism necessarily racist?’ (p. 29, original emphasis). Her answer is in the affirmative. While accepting that a non-racial capitalism might be possible in principle, she argues that there are structural reasons for capital’s ongoing racialised expropriation. By extension one can add that capital in principle is indifferent to wider ‘extra-economic’ identities including gender relations, which is the problematic stance of Ellen Meiksins Wood. Yet, as I have argued elsewhere with Andreas Bieler in an article in Environment and Planning A, capitalism is not gender indifferent or racially blinkered and gender oppression or racial domination are constituent underpinnings in the making of capitalism. Returning again to wider social reproduction theory and specifically Arruzza’s guidance is therefore essential in parsing the logical and historical dimensions of race and gender as necessary preconditions of capitalism.
As already argued, Fraser is very clear that there is a non-accidental or structural imbrication between the emergence and reproduction of capitalism along with gender domination, racial oppression, or ecological degradation. But as Arruzza clarifies, there is an important distinction to draw between the logical and historical dimensions of capitalism. Is gender or racial oppression a necessary feature of capitalism? Arruzza’s response to her own question is that locating gender and race repression as necessary preconditions of capitalism is possible but difficult to prove. Revisit Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism and much commentary can be found on how ‘racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism’, to constitute racial capitalism. Observe W.E.B Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 on how capitalists’ reconstruction of post-Civil War border states and the expansion of the southwestern frontier was based on a strategy, to quote, of ‘reactionary property interests hiding behind the colour bar’, so that ‘under “race” they camouflaged a dictatorship of land and capital over black labour and indirectly over white labour’. Or similarly witness Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery stress that ‘slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’. According to this contributor to the Black radical tradition, the origin of slavery ‘was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the colour of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labour’. Or, to avoid the erasure of the Black gendered subject from history, witness Angela Davis in Women, Race & Class recognise that:
The slave system defined Black people as chattel. Since women, no less than men, were viewed as profitable labour-units, they might as well have been genderless as far as slaveholders were concerned.
Hence, following Arruzza’s insight, social phenomena such as racial capitalism or the system of patriarchy can be necessary consequences of the logic of capitalist accumulation, even if they are not logical preconditions for it. Capitalism was born into a prior system-of-states to produce the modern capitalist state. Patriarchy predates capitalism but is reproduced anew through violence against women within a capitalist-patriarchy nexus. Racism historically antecedes the origin of capitalism but is dependent on dehumanising others through a global colour line to constitute racial capitalism. These have become necessary consequences rather than logical preconditions of capitalism’s emergence.
It is too simple to assert that capitalism has a non-accidental, structural connection to gender domination, or racial oppression. How better, then, are we to understand both the presuppositions and the results of the ongoing changes in capitalist-patriarchy and racial capitalism? This is one of the fundamental challenges facing Marxist Feminist and Black Marxist traditions today and it is producing an ever-widening project of collective intellectual labour.
My sense, to conclude, is that reading Cannibal Capitalism is itself a necessary consequence of the importance of these debates but not a logical precondition for unpacking the internal relations within the dialectical matrix of class, gender, race, and ecology. The question of the historically or logically necessary conditions in the emergence of capitalism is still one that future scholarship will have to settle.