Nancy Fraser’s analysis of the Capitalist Society

Karl Polanyi Visiting Professorship

Nancy Fraser’s analysis of the capitalist society: intellectual traditions, theoretical approaches, and visions for the future

Laudatio at the inauguration event of the 1st Viennese Karl Polanyi visiting professor on 4th May 2021, Vienna City Hall by Brigitte Aulenbacher

7th May, 2021

It is a great honour—and an equally great challenge—to deliver this speech in recognition of Nancy Fraser’s rich and multifarious work. And I am delighted to be doing so on behalf of the International Karl Polanyi Society. The last time my colleagues and I from the International Karl Polanyi Society met Nancy Fraser was two years ago. It was at an event at Bennington College in Vermont on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Karl Polanyi’s magnum opus The Great Transformation, which he had written at the college. It perhaps came as no surprise to those who know Nancy Fraser when she said at that event that she would in fact consider herself as ‘Marxist’ or ‘Marxian’ rather than ‘Polanyian’. It would have probably been just as unsurprising had she said, for example, that she considered herself a ‘feminist’.

At the time, we had no idea that, before too long, a visiting professorship in Karl Polanyi’s name would be created in Vienna—the city that had such an impact on his life and work—and that we would have the tremendous honour and pleasure of welcoming Nancy Fraser as our very first visiting professor. But how does this fit together: an internationally renowned author and researcher, who has contributed decisively to the ongoing rediscovery of Karl Polanyi’s work and made it accessible for constructive discussion, yet who epitomises so much more?

In this brief address I will try to illustrate how Nancy Fraser’s oeuvre drives the discussion forward, the discussion which we seek to encourage in the spirit of Polanyi and through the newly established visiting professorship in Vienna as well as a lecture series, this year’s motto of which is: ‘Countermovements: putting the economy in its place’. I shall do so by presenting some unique aspects that highlight the many facets of Nancy Fraser’s work.  

Intellectual Traditions

Nancy Fraser is a social philosopher and effortlessly crosses the boundaries between disciplines. At times we encounter thoughts and ideas related to political science, at other times to sociology, alongside her philosophical reflections. What remains constant however, is that her ideas are always rooted in long-standing intellectual traditions. As the internationally renowned representative of critical theory that she is, Nancy Fraser has always sought to engage with Jürgen Habermas (Fraser 1992, 2015). Her theory of justice—rooting in feminist research (Fraser 1996, 2001)—developed out of the controversy with Axel Honneth and her critiques of the limits of his theory of recognition (Fraser/Honneth 2003). Her analysis of capitalism and society is strongly influenced by Marx, we find Polanyi’s work inscribed in her theory of the contemporary capitalist society, accompanied by reference to Antonio Gramsci—and in her ‘conversation in critical theory’ with Rahel Jaeggi she brings all these distinct intellectual traditions together (Fraser/Jaeggi 2018). So, can we in fact identify a common theme?

In my view, her ultimate objective, as she spelled out with Axel Honneth in the tradition of critical theory, is to ‘conceptualise capitalist society as a “totality”’ (Fraser/Honneth 2003, p. 10). Her aim—and indeed, that of the various intellectual traditions listed above, albeit each in its own distinctive way—is to discern the social structures and interrelationships that cause the ecological, economic, social, cultural and political crises we have witnessed over the past few decades and which have so far had a considerable impact on the 21st century (Fraser/Jaeggi 2018).

“According to Nancy Fraser, capitalism as such, regarding both its emergence and various forms of manifestation, cannot be separated from sexism and racism.”

Understanding this development of society, the feminist Nancy Fraser explains, requires a broadening of the perspective on capitalism and society. We need an analysis of capitalism that regards not only class inequalities, but also the dimensions of gender and race as constitutive of this social formation (Fraser 2018a). According to Nancy Fraser, capitalism as such, regarding both its emergence and various forms of manifestation, cannot be separated from sexism and racism. In this sense, capitalism is neither compatible with the idea which Nancy Fraser—well ahead of her time—introduced to the discussion in the 1990s: the organisation of society according to the ‘universal caregiver’ principle, a conception of humanity and idea of man which aspire, in keeping with ‘anti-poverty’, ‘anti-exploitation’, ‘anti-androcentrism’, ‘equality of respect’, etc. (Fraser 1994, p. 610; see also Fraser 1996), for all people to be able to care for themselves and others. Nor is capitalism conceivable without colonialism and slavery, a circumstance that is currently being condemned by the Black Lives Matter movement and has led Nancy Fraser to speak of ‘racialized capitalism’ (Fraser 2018b, 2018c).

In my understanding, Nancy Fraser seeks to develop a feminist and intersectional theory of justice and an analysis and critique of capitalism that traces the relations of dominance and causes of crisis to the economy and the relation between economy, ecology and society, while at the same time pursuing emancipatory change.

Theory of Justice

Nancy Fraser’s (2001, 2003, 2006, 2007) theory of justice, developed at the beginning of this century, is highly relevant and topical, as we shall see in the following. I will venture to highlight some of its key aspects here. In her widely acknowledged concept of social justice, she recombines what has been separated historically: the topics of redistribution and recognition, commonly more closely associated with the ‘old Left’ or the ‘new Left’ under the label of class politics or identity politics, respectively (Fraser/Honneth 2003, pp. 8; Fraser 2009, p. 481). And she reflects on the issue of the ‘representation’ of people in a globalised world, the nation-state-based structure of which does not provide for the participation of all people, even in democracies (Fraser 2007). Nancy Fraser’s ‘three-dimensional’ concept of social justice focuses on economy, culture and politics as the domains that structure and determine the practice of social life (Fraser 2004, p. 19, Fraser 2007). It is where the decisions concerning the redistribution of wealth and goods, the recognition of diversity and the opportunities for influencing the destinies of society are made. A just society, according to Fraser (2003, p. 55), can be measured by the extent to which the norm of ‘participatory parity’ of all members of society has been established. The path to such a society is marked by struggles for redistribution, recognition and representation, in the course of which marginalised and discriminated groups in society have to claim their right to participation in the face of institutional obstacles. Fraser’s ‘perspectivist dualism’ states that questions of redistribution always also entail a dimension of recognition and vice versa, and the dialogical and deliberative negotiation of issues of redistribution, recognition and representation is without alternative in a democratic society. The ‘political sphere serves […] as a kind of stage on which the struggles for redistribution and recognition take place’ (Fraser 2007, p. 351) and where the question of who is entitled to make which demands is determined and new forms of democratic participation must be developed.

Theory of Capitalism

With regard to Marx and Polanyi, Nancy Fraser argues ‘why two Karls are better than one’, for ‘each of these Karls affords some indispensable insights for understanding capitalist crisis’ (Fraser 2018d, p. 67). According to Nancy Fraser, society is suffering from a fundamental contradiction inherent in capitalism. Building on Marx, she defines this contradiction as follows: the accumulation-driven dynamic of the capitalist mode of production destroys the very foundations of social and ecological reproduction on which it relies for its own functioning (Fraser 2016, 2018a). Here, her perspective focuses on the relations of ownership and exploitation, which subordinate humanity and nature to the logic of capital valorisation and accumulation and which is where the appropriation of surplus value and the wealth redistribution in favour of the 1 % takes place. Yet this Karl (Marx), she argues, is too fixated on inner-economic processes. Nancy Fraser considers the other Karl (Polanyi), by contrast, to be the best diagnostician of crisis of our time. His concept of ‘fictitious commodities’, according to which the destructive commodification of land, labour and money in line with the requirements of the ‘self-regulating markets’ leads to the ‘demolition of society’ (Polanyi 2001, pp. 71ff), explains the more recent ecological, (finance-)economic and social crises which have proven to be politically momentous for some time (Fraser 2012). To some extent, however, Nancy Fraser is at odds with this Karl as well. Even though he does address the relation between economy and society, society seems to remain a ‘black box’ (Fraser 2018d, 71, see also Fraser 2012).

“Yet this Karl (Marx), she argues, is too fixated on inner-economic processes. Nancy Fraser considers the other Karl (Polanyi), by contrast, to be the best diagnostician of crisis of our time.”

Correspondingly, Nancy Fraser’s own approach differs. The decision about what is to be organised in a marketised, private-commercial, familial or state-coordinated form, and in what way this is linked to social inequalities and occurs not only in the economy or in the relation between economy and society. It occurs also in ‘border struggles’ that develop along the ‘social institutional order’ of capitalism (Fraser 2018d, p.72, see also Fraser 2018a) and are closely linked to the division of labour. While Polanyi (2001, pp. 79f.) considers history to be the result of a ‘double movement’, that is, the ‘movement’ of the market-fundamentalist commodification of land, labour and money and the ‘countermovements’ through which society seeks to protect itself from the consequences of market dynamics, Nancy Fraser (2012), proposes her concept of the ‘triple movement’, which is close to her conception of social justice. This concept includes—besides the Polanyian double movement—those social protests and struggles that are neither of the Marxian type (i.e. directed against exploitation) nor of the Polanyian type (i.e. for the protection against the consequences of market fundamentalism), but which pursue the goal of ‘emancipation’ in the sense of recognition and may be linked to a critique of exploitation and the dynamics of the market, but not necessarily so.

The Analysis of Contemporary Crises

Nancy Fraser sparks debate. I would like to illustrate this based on two specific examples. The first pertains to populism, the second, to feminism with regard to the present and the future.

With respect to populism, Nancy Fraser (2019a, pp. 11ff.) emphasises the path from ‘progressive’ to ‘reactionary’ and ultimately to ‘hyperreactionary neo-liberalism’, not only in the United States. In her view, these developments were, and continue to be—before, during and after the financial crisis—the cause of economic, ecological and social crises and of the intensification of social inequalities and divisions, while also leading to far-reaching shifts in the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Alongside the rise of anti-democratic forces, the latter includes the destabilisation of the political institutions which the capitalist market economy relies on for its functioning—given that it does not exist independently from society, as Karl Polanyi (2001, 1979) made clear. To Nancy Fraser, ‘today’s crisis of democracy is a dimension of the capitalist crisis’ (Fraser 2019b, p. 82), as neoliberalism is stretched to its limits. Drawing on Gramsci, she speaks in his words of an ‘interregnum’, in which ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ (Fraser 2019a). This goes along with a ‘hegemonic gap—and the struggle to fill it’ (Fraser 2019a, p. 18). As regards the chances of managing to form a ‘counterhegemonic bloc’ (Gramsci) in light of a society shaken by crisis, she provocatively states that the current situation ‘leaves progressive populism as the likeliest candidate’ (Fraser 2019a, p. 30). To her, redistribution and recognition are topics through which ‘progressive populism’ can take effect both subjectively and objectively, reach people and thus change conditions, considering the existential social uncertainties felt by large parts of the population and the struggles discriminated groups face to assert their rights.

Regarding my second example and to Nancy Fraser (2009), the history of neoliberalism is also one of the co-optation of feminism. Policies of gender equality in the context of the given economic order have helped only very few women to climb up the social/professional ladder and achieve real success, while the ‘99%’ suffer the consequences of the economic, ecological, social and political crises. Nancy Fraser has provided inspiring contributions to the debate across a wide range of feminist and intersectional critiques of capitalism, always with the objective of inverting relations that are the wrong way round—to paraphrase Marx—and reversing the subordination of social-ecological reproduction to economic production (Arruzza/Bhattacharya/Fraser 2019). With regard to our motto: this also includes ‘putting the economy in its place’ in society, instead of—in the words of Karl Polanyi (2001, p. 79)—degrading society to the status of an ‘accessory of the economic system’. To Nancy Fraser, ‘progressive populism’ is not a ‘stable endpoint. Progressive populism could end up being transitional—a way station en route to some new postcapitalist form of society’. (Fraser 2019, p. 39)

The Vision for the Future

Nancy Fraser’s work is pervaded by a holistic view on economic, social, cultural and political claims to participation and egalitarian distribution, equal recognition and participation.

In the last chapter of his main work, entitled ‘Freedom in a complex society’, Karl Polanyi envisages a society that could be ‘just and free’, ‘when the utopian experiment of a self-regulating market will be no more than a memory’ (Polanyi 2001, p. 258). In this society, the ‘right to non-conformity’ (Polanyi 2001, pp. 260ff.) as a form of individual freedom would take centre stage just as much as the organisation and structuring of society in a way that would break with the structures of privilege and replace existing economic organisation with forms of ‘planning’, ‘regulation’ and ‘control’ in order to guarantee freedom for all (Polanyi 2001, pp. 264ff.).

Nancy Fraser’s (2019c) vision for the future is one of ecological socialism, in which the centralism of the failed socialist systems is entirely alien, in which the relations of ownership and economic organisation are subjected to a radical democratic restructuring and in which it ultimately becomes a collective decision which growth paths are chosen, and how and for what purposes surplus value is actually used.

When comparing both Karl Polanyi’s (2001) and Nancy Fraser’s (2003, 2019c) conceptions of a ‘just and free’ socialist society, it turns out that they may have far more in common than is often assumed.

Today, and in the coming days, we can look forward to being part of some exciting discussions with our very first Karl Polanyi visiting professor Nancy Fraser, contributing to the intellectual ‘countermovements’ of our time.


Arruzza, Cinzia / Bhattacharya, Tithi / Fraser, Nancy (2019): Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, London/New York: Verso

Fraser, Nancy (1992): Was ist kritisch an der Kritischen Theorie? Habermas und die Ge-schlechterfrage, in: Ostner, Ilona / Lichtblau, Klaus (Hg.): Feministische Vernunft-kritik, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, pp. 99-146

Fraser, Nancy (1994): “After the Family Wage: Gender Equity and the Welfare State”, Political Theory, vol. 22 no. 4 (November 1994), Newbury Park: Sage Publishing, pp. 591-618

Fraser, Nancy (1996): Die Gleichheit der Geschlechter und das Wohlfahrtssystem: Ein postindustrielles Gedankenexperiment, in: Nagl-Docekal, Herta / Pauer-Studer, Herlinde (Hg.): Politische Theorie. Differenz und Lebensqualität, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 469-498

Fraser, Nancy (2001): Die halbierte Gerechtigkeit. Schlüsselbegriffe des postindustriellen Sozialstaats, aus dem Amerikanischen von Karin Wördemann, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp

Fraser, Nancy (2003): Soziale Gerechtigkeit im Zeitalter der Identitätspolitik. Umverteilung, Anerkennung und Beteiligung, in: Fraser, Nancy / Honneth, Axel (Hg.): Umverteilung oder Anerkennung? Eine politisch-philosophische Kontroverse, übersetzt von Burkhardt Wolf, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 13-128

Fraser Nancy (2004): Feministische Politik im Zeitalter der Anerkennung: ein zweidimensionaler Ansatz für Geschlechtergerechtigkeit, in: Beerhorst, Joachim / Demirović, Alex / Guggemos, Michael (Hg.): Kritische Theorie im gesellschaftlichen Strukturwandel, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 453-474

Fraser, Nancy (2006): Mapping the Feminist Imagination. From Redistribution to Recognition to Representation, in: Degener, Ursula / Rosenzweig, Beate (Hg.): Die Neuverhandlung sozialer Gerechtigkeit: feministische Analysen und Perspektiven, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, pp. 37-51

Fraser, Nancy (2007): Zur Neubestimmung von Gerechtigkeit in einer globalisierten Welt, in: Heidbrink, Ludger / Hirsch, Alfred (Hg.): Staat ohne Verantwortung?: Zum Wandel der Aufgaben von Staat und Politik, Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, pp. 343-372

Fraser, Nancy (2009): Feminismus, Kapitalismus und die List der Geschichte. in: Forst, Rainer / Hartmann, Martin / Jaeggi, Rahel / Saar, Martin (Hg.): Sozialphilosophie und Kritik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 481-505

Fraser, Nancy, (2015): “Legitimation Crisis? On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism”, Critical Historical Studies vol. 2, no. 2, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 1–33

Fraser, Nancy (2016): “Contradictions of Capital and Care”, New Left Review 100, London: New Left Review, pp. 99–117

Fraser, Nancy (2018a): “Krise, Kritik und Kapitalismus, Eine Orientierungshilfe für das 21. Jahrhundert”, in: Scheele, Alexandra / Wöhl, Stefanie (Hg.): Feminismus und Marxismus, Weinheim/Basel: Beltz Juventa, pp. 40-58

Fraser, Nancy (2018b): “From Exploitation to Expropriation: Historical Geographies of Racialized Capitalism”, Economic Geography 94, no. 1, pp. 1-17

Fraser, Nancy (2018c): “Is Capitalism Necessarily Racist?” [2018 Presidential Address, APA Eastern Division], Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 92, pp. 21–42

Fraser, Nancy (2018d): Why Two Karls are Better than One, Integrating Polanyi and Marx in a Critical Theory of the Current Crisis, in: Brie, Michael / Thomasberger, Claus (Eds.): Karl Polanyi’s Vision of a Socialist Transformation, Montreal, New York, Chicago, London: Black Rose Books, pp. 67-76

Fraser, Nancy (2019a): The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born, London/New York: Verso

Fraser, Nancy (2019b): „Die Krise der Demokratie: Über politische Widersprüche des Finanzmarktkapitalismus jenseits des Politizismus“, in: Ketterer, Hannah / Becker, Katharina (Hg.): Was stimmt nicht mit der Demokratie? Eine Debatte mit Klaus Dörre, Nancy Fraser, Stephan Lessenich und Hartmut Rosa, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 77-99

Fraser, Nancy (2019c): “What should socialism mean in the 21st century?”, in: Panitch, Leo / Albo, Greg (Hg.): Socialist Register 2020: Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living, London: Merlin Press, pp. 282–294

Fraser, Nancy / Honneth, Axel (2003): Umverteilung oder Anerkennung? Eine politisch-philosophische Kontroverse, übersetzt von Burkhardt Wolf, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp

Fraser, Nancy / Jaeggi, Rahel (2018): Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, Cambridge/Medford: Polity

Polanyi, Karl (2001): The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press

Polanyi, Karl (1979): Ökonomie und Gesellschaft, übers. v. Heinrich Jelinek, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp

Translation by Jan-Peter Herrmann

Nancy Fraser

Nancy Fraser is Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at the New School for Social Research and the 1st Karl Polanyi visiting professor hosted by the Central European University Vienna, the University of Vienna and the WU Vienna.

Brigitte Aulenbacher

Brigitte Aulenbacher is Professor of Sociological Theory and Social Analysis at the Johannes Kepler University Linz and Vice-President of the International Karl Polanyi Society.