Reading Nancy Fraser’s critique of progressive neoliberalism.
‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born’.
The global crisis we are living through is ecological (climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, water and atmospheric pollution etc.), economic (financialization of everything, unsustainable consumption and growth, increased personal debt etc.) and social (growing inequality, insecurity, pandemic disease, weaker infrastructure of care and social support etc.).
The crisis is also political. More people have stopped accepting the reigning ‘common sense’, or hegemony, of our age, and there has been a dramatic weakening of the authority of established political classes and parties. We need to try to understand the causes of crisis and the potential responses it may elicit if we are to find our way through and transform our society in ways that can help us survive.
The critical theorist, Nancy Fraser, is Professor of Political and Social Science and Philosophy at The New School in New York City. The title of her essay is taken from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and her analysis draws on the Gramscian concept of hegemony.
When the particular world view of a dominant group has become the generally accepted ‘common sense’ of society as a whole, this hegemony of ideas can make that group’s dominance appear natural despite being contested. The dominant group can be described as a ‘hegemonic bloc’ and it may well be a coalition or alliance of disparate social groups with some common interests.
In ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born’ (Verso, 2019) Nancy Fraser analyses the current hegemonic bloc she describes as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ and makes the case for an alternative progressive-populist or eco-socialist counter-hegemonic bloc which would be better placed to address our global crisis in ways which enhance social justice and human flourishing.
Distribution and recognition
Nancy Fraser defines the two essential dimensions of justice and human rights as distribution and recognition. Distribution refers to how income, wealth and social and material goods are shared. Recognition refers to respect and esteem, the expression and acknowledgement of identity, membership and belonging. Both are vital components of a good society.
Based on each of these criteria our current system is clearly failing. It is delivering neither redistribution nor recognition for all and both dimensions are in crisis. The promise of a better life in an ever wealthier and fairer society rings pretty hollow at a time when living standards are falling, inequalities are widening and injustices proliferate. The ‘common-sense’ we’ve lived with for several decades no longer makes sense to most of us, and it is hardly surprising that we are searching for counter-hegemonic ideas that could offer us a better way forward.
The ’old’ hegemony seems to be on its last legs, but the ‘new’ counter hegemony is still under construction.
We’ve lived for some time within a logic of neoliberalism, where the ideas and values which support it are hegemonic and have become the dominant ‘common-sense’ of the age. Economic neoliberalism implies a commitment to the primacy of markets, the exploitation of natural and human resources for private gain and the commodification and financialization of as much planetary resource and human activity as possible. It has created an apparently unstoppable regime of global corporate dominance.
This hegemony goes beyond the purely economic, and ideas of market value, competition and exchange have also shaped our social and cultural landscape. ‘The market’ is regarded as the predominant means of providing goods and services. Citizens are defined mainly as consumers and producers, buying and selling rather than exercising democratic control. The idea of humans choosing to work together for the collective good is redefined as individuals using their human capital to gain some personal advantage as well as to generate some wealth for others.
Competition between corporations to exploit people or plunder the planet’s resources is redefined as an essential freedom. Public services are seen as burdens to be minimised, best provided with a minimum of state intervention or at least in partnership with private corporations. Human and social value is defined in terms of winners and losers, with gross inequality a necessary side-effect. Any serious attempt to redistribute wealth and power and create a more equal society is seen as impractical or counterproductive. The rich persuade themselves that they deserve their wealth and privilege and overlook the self-reproducing nature of their advantages. The poor are encouraged to blame themselves for their lack of enterprise and success, even as the rigged nature of the system is evident.
This is the neoliberal hegemony which is failing us so badly and creating the various connected crises we face and which needs to be challenged before it destroys us.
Neoliberalism’s ‘progressive’ variant
Nancy Fraser describes the current dominant variant of neoliberal hegemony as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ because it is an alliance of economic neoliberalism with some ‘elite’ currents of social movements such as feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ rights and environmentalism. While this is a distinctive new form of neoliberal hegemony, it is still neoliberal in that it broadly rejects tax and spend solutions, supports deregulation, corporate power and the global free movement of capital. It is still a system which undermines workers’ rights and union organisation and can lead only to greater inequality and insecurity for the majority.
Neoliberalism has been repackaged and given the veneer of a progressive politics of recognition, but in practice its benefits fail to reach the disempowered or dispossessed majority. In effect we’re being offered more neoliberalism with some crumbs of elite progressivism; limited representation with no widespread redistribution.
Towards a new common-sense?
Nancy Fraser’s view is that to resolve our systemic crises, neoliberalism must be challenged rather than accommodated. This requires a progressive, democratic and egalitarian version of populism – where the interests of the majority are understood as being incompatible with those of the elite. It needs to avoid pitting representation against redistribution or assuming that an alternative politics can only serve one interest group, privileging social class over anti-racism for example – or vice versa. As Nancy Fraser puts it: “the axes of injustice can be attacked in tandem, as they must.” In contrast to a meritocratic progressivism of the elite, it requires, for instance, a ‘feminism of the 99%’ and an ‘anti-racism of the 99%’, and instead of green capitalism it would require an ‘environmentalism of the 99%’.
This counter hegemonic bloc may be under construction, but it’s not yet become the new consensus, and before it does we can expect an unstable interregnum, with many dangers, notably from xenophobic and authoritarian populisms. The recent first round of the French presidential election is illustrative; it has crystallised the options, with the electorate divided into 3 roughly equal blocs: one third ‘progressive neoliberal’, one third ‘progressive populist’ and one third ‘reactionary populist’ – a balance that won’t be easy to resolve given that two thirds have voted to reject the ‘old’ while being fairly evenly split about what the ‘new’ should look like.
According to Nancy Fraser, the progressive populist bloc should focus on the economic and institutional structures as well as the roots of the shared injustices faced by women, black, LGBTQ+ people and working-class people as a whole. It needs to challenge declining living standards, the intolerable insecurity of life under neoliberalism, discrimination and injustices of all kinds, the causes of climate change and environmental degradation, debt, financialization, de-industrialization and corporate globalization. The key is to combine a robustly egalitarian politics of redistribution with an inclusive race, gender and class-sensitive politics of representation. Creating such a counter-hegemonic bloc is not going to be easy but it has the potential to become a political majority and to help us address our crises.
Owning our crises (March 2022)
Finding our voice in a crisis (January 2022)
An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)
Market madness: condition critical (June 2015)
Market madness #7 What markets do to us (March 2015)