Nancy Fraser’s eco-socialist common sense.

Nancy Fraser’s ‘Climates of Capital’.

nancy fraserIn the essay ‘Climates of Capital’ (2021) Nancy Fraser argues that we need to see the various major crises we face as systemic and connected, resulting from capitalism. If we are to survive and flourish, we will need to create an alternative eco-socialist common-sense about how to organise our economic and social relations. I’ve summarized‘Climates of Capital’ here, with my apologies for any misunderstandings or lack of clarity.

The climate emergency is now regarded as a pressing issue across the political spectrum. But although there is almost universal consensus about the problem, there is less agreement about the forces that drive it and the type of action needed to stop it.

Our crisis is not just ecological, it is also economic, political and social. Our experience of these multiple aspects reduce our confidence in the ability of the established ‘common-sense’ to deal with the challenge. It feels like ‘the old is dying and the new is not yet born’ in Gramsci’s phrase and this leads us to search for a new common-sense.

What is ‘not yet born’ is a new analysis and an alternative hegemony, which could go beyond the merely ‘environmental’ by connecting it to other vital concerns such as poverty, inequality, insecurity, workers’ rights, migrant rights, racial and gender oppression, and the value of care work and public health. To adopt a ‘reductive ecologism’, which sees climate change as the one big issue which trumps all others, is to miss the systemic nature of the crisis. Nancy Fraser argues that eco-politics needs to be anti-capitalist rather than merely environmental, because we need to follow all the symptoms to their root cause.

Understanding capitalism.

Capitalism is a way of organising production and exchange based on a monetized notion of ‘value’ where commodities are produced through privately owned means of production by wage labour and are sold on price-setting markets by private firms to generate profit and accumulate capital.

This ‘economic’ realm is entirely dependent on the ‘natural’ realm – a host of natural processes and social activities defined as ‘non-economic’ and which are assumed to have no ‘value’. Capitalism separates these two realms, regarding the ‘economic’ as a field for creative human activity which generates value and the ‘non-economic’ which is devoid of value while also being infinitely self-replenishing and generally available to support production. By discounting ‘externalities’, capitalist production effectively gets a free ride, with vastly cheapened inputs and costs passed on to future generations as well as those who have to live with the fallout now. These costs include pollution, climate change, rising seas, floods, droughts and wildfires, mass extinctions, declining biodiversity and increased zoonotic spillovers of deadly diseases.

Nancy Fraser sums up the contradictions at the heart of capitalist economy using 4 d-words: production is dependent on nature while dividing the economy from it ontologically, disowning ecological costs and destabilizing ecosystems.

Capital’s relation to nature is predatory and extractive and has ecological contradiction ‘in its DNA’, with a resulting tendency to periodic crisis. But nature is not the only ‘non-economic’ background condition. The care work done by families and communities is essential to social reproduction and should also be included in any analysis. It sustains labour power and forges social bonds between people. By splitting production from reproduction, capitalism appropriates care work without planning for its replenishment.

Capitalism also needs political and cultural support to help keep profits up. This includes maintaining the ideology which underpins it, providing low corporate taxation, weaker regulation and a minimum of public infrastructure and hollowing out democratic structures that could enable public power to challenge private power.

Capitalism always seems to be on the verge of disrupting its own conditions of possibility, ‘like a cannibal devouring its own vital organs, like a serpent eating its own tail’ in the words of James O’Connell. The metaphor is apt, and Nancy Fraser’s forthcoming book will further explore the idea of ‘Cannibal Capitalism’.

The system vests the organisation of production to capital, handing the power to manage the Earth to a class that is motivated to trash it by extracting raw materials, generating energy, determining land-use, food systems and waste-disposal. It has the motive, the means and the opportunity to savage the planet, bringing us climate change and ‘baked-in’ system crisis.

Struggles about economy and nature are political and are often about the scale and type of interventions needed, whether local, national or global. They are also about the expropriation and racialized chattel slavery of the global south and the exploitation by, and within, the global north.

What is Nature?

Nature is both a ‘tap’ and a ‘sink’ for production – providing both raw materials and the opportunity to dump what is no longer needed. Nancy Fraser provides three overlapping and mutually compatible conceptions of nature: a purely scientific-realist Nature I, a Nature II which is ‘other’ ontologically separate from humanity eternally giving and replenishing and ripe for financialization and expropriation. And thirdly, a fuller, more historical and constantly changing Nature III, entangled with humanity, shaping and shaped by it.

Nancy Fraser sees history as a sequence of socio-ecological regimes of accumulation, successively based first on animal muscle power, then coal power and eventually the internal combustion engine, all punctuated by crises, each of which, until now, has been provisionally resolved by a successor regime. We stagger from crisis-fix to crisis-fix, from conquest to colonization, from neo-imperialism to financialization with a shifting core-periphery boundary.

We are in the era of financialised capitalism with much manufacturing relocated to the global South. The North specialises in ‘post-material’ activity such as IT, services and finance, although our consumption is as Carbon intensive as ever. The South continues to be raided by forms of ‘monopoly rent’, such as big Pharma’s exploitation of indigenous plant-based medicines and Agri-industry’s patenting of crop strains and designed sterility, and also for new ‘must-have’ resources such as Lithium for batteries and Coltan for mobile phones.

Even as we recognise the threat of climate change, carbon emissions themselves are treated as commodities, to be traded or offset. Natural assets are assumed to be as fungible and commensurable as capital itself. Do we need to justify a new coal-fired power station? Just plant a forest and all will be well.

For a new eco-politics.

In summary, capitalism harbours a deep-seated contradiction which leads to environmental crisis. This dynamic is inextricably entwined with other ‘non-environmental’ tendencies and can’t be resolved separately from them. The costs of the inherent contradictions are discounted and offloaded onto populations that ‘don’t matter’ and onto future generations.

But climate crisis is epochal and potentially terminal, and we cannot save the planet without a fundamental re-ordering of the economy-nature nexus and a dismantling of key features of our social order and the prerogatives of capital. We need to reinvent our relation to nature and wrest the power to determine that relation from those that currently monopolize it. We need to challenge the relentless dynamic of accumulation and the ‘pernicious ontology of value’ and to align social and economic notions of value. We need to recognise that the environment can’t be protected without disturbing the framework of capitalist society and that ecosystem damage increases inequalities and the burdens of poverty and care-giving, with disproportionate impacts on women and those with the least power.

Nancy Fraser argues for a global eco-politics to link natural and social reproduction, questions of ecology, political power, racial and sexual oppression and imperial domination. State-focused movements privilege the national as the frame for action and cling to the belief that capital can be ‘tamed’. The standalone ‘environmentalism of the rich’ or the consumer environmentalism of personal lifestyle guilt and blame are wholly inadequate because they avoid confronting the problem.

Many of the essential building blocks for this eco-socialist politics already exist: movements for environmental justice, environmentalisms of the poor, decolonial and indigenous movements. Green New Dealers advocate programmes to stimulate economies and create jobs. De-growth activists provide a critique of ever-increasing production and consumption but can conflate what should grow but can’t, such as restorative and caring activity, with what is valued most by capital but should not be allowed to grow because it threatens our survival.

All these alternatives bring essential insights and press for a deep rethink of our ways of living and our relation to nature. But none are yet substantive or connected enough to be adequate to the task at hand, which should be to build a new hegemonic common-sense which links all aspect of our crises and integrates them with feminism, labour rights, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-extractivism, anti-consumerism and class consciousness. Developing viable alternatives will require a robust diagnosis as well as a commitment to democratic forms of social planning.

Based on Nancy Fraser: ‘Climates of Capital’, New Left Review 127 (Jan/Feb 2021).

See also:

Education, social justice and survival in a time of crisis (July 2022)

Redistribution and recognition should go hand in hand (April 2022)

Owning our crises (March 2022)

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

Nancy Fraser: What should socialism mean in the 21st century, Socialist Register 2020.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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