Where does Value Lie?

Cannibal Capitalism, by Nancy Fraser (Verso, 2023)

Nancy Fraser’s book Cannibal Capitalism promises both a diagnosis of the various contemporary crises and a framework that will tie them together for a coherent, new-generation socialist politics. These are the crisis of care and social reproduction; Black injustice and ongoing colonialism; the crisis of democracy; and the destruction of the planet.

The cannibalism metaphor points up the destructive forces at the heart of the capitalist relation: capitalism’s super-productive capacity rests upon the destruction of prior forms of life and society, though it will cannibalise the old to construct the new. But further, the metaphor suggests voraciousness towards the very substance of life, and here Fraser mounts an argument about capitalism cannibalising the very preconditions of its own existence, and ours.

Ultimately, however, the neat schema Fraser imposes over these four realms of relations and crises acts as a dead weight on what is particular to how we live and what is new in the crises we are experiencing today. Although hers is an expanded Marxist framework, she neglects to consider key drivers of the unique conjuncture that now sees life-worlds, planet and subjectivities so prone to ultimate collapse.

Fraser’s main contribution in this book is to point up what she describes as a different kind of contradiction hidden within the capitalist form, a primary location for that cannibal voraciousness. As Marx unfolded the ‘hidden abode’ of the capitalist market to reveal the true nature of capitalist accumulation—the exploitation of ‘free labour’ and extraction of value lying behind the commodity relation—so Fraser moves behind that abode to find another. Here lie sources of original and ongoing expropriation, of unrecognised sources of value, rather than exploitation, a relation specific to the labour ‘contract’ at the heart of capitalist economy proper.

These sources of hidden value are: the bodies and work of women especially, but the range of processes of social reproduction such as education, care, socialisation and subjectivation; the expropriated resources and metabolic contributions of colonised, enslaved and racialised peoples; our collective investment in something like a shared public, its institutions and achieved democratic safeguards; and the ‘free’ services of nature. Taken for granted in bourgeois accounting, these unrecognised sources of value are equally hidden from view in typical socialist accounts of the successes and failures of capitalism.

Fraser situates the contradictions arising from the doubly hidden abode of exploitation and expropriation in a spatial construct. Contradictions of this type do not originate or take effect at the heart of the capitalist relation so much as along the borderlines where economy meets sources of value that are relegated, as often as not, to the realm of the natural or to aspects of the social hard to control. In this respect, those sources sit outside economy, even though they are drawn upon as resources for it. Thus women’s labour in birthing, child-reading and socialisation has sat in that doubly hidden abode, its contributions to economy fundamental to preparing new generations of workers and subjects, yet hidden from view and taken for granted. Marxist-feminists like Fraser can reveal how different forms of the family and shifts in gender roles align with different stages of capitalist development, proving their integration into those larger structures of economy and production. But as well, and in some kind of contradistinction to capitalism’s capacity to integrate and transform, this ‘sphere’ of life and action is in some sense a different one. It is, and it remains so even after the cannibal has done its work.

Fraser asks, is capitalism structurally racist?, and her answer is ‘yes’. Colonialism and racism are constitutive supports of capitalism, both at its origins and now. Expropriation couldn’t be clearer. The dispossession of lands, and the enslaving or subjection of whole peoples to facilitate land grabs and resource extraction have basically sat outside both Marxist and bourgeois accounting, occupying much the same kind of ‘hidden abode’ as women’s work, and classical assumptions about nature and the environment. As with women’s work and social reproduction, capitalism could neither come into being nor continue without the ‘flow-on’ effects of a structural racism, for example, the racial inequalities and massive incarceration of Black populations in the US metropole, as well as in the ways extractive industries and ‘debt peonage’ of whole nations under ‘financialised capitalism’ are ongoing in the periphery. Expropriation here embraces both the ‘original’ dispossession of lands and resources of subject peoples, and the unpaid metabolic inputs of slaves and various racialised groups in the past and present, including the value-creation of women in these groups via biological reproduction and their availability to white men.

Feminist, Black and environmental theorists have obviously already shown how their ‘realms’ and constituents have been drawn into the maw of capitalism, and Fraser thoroughly acknowledges them. Her focus is on revealing connections between these sources of hidden value and showing the particular type of contradiction they introduce into the mix. Though they are drawn into history and take different forms, she affords them some kind of relative independence.

This may be clearest in relation to ‘nature’, or the planetary threat under which we all live today. However capitalism seeks to consume nature, nature still has the capacity to bite back: there are sources of power that sit outside even the cannibal capacities of extraction and transformation, as well as those by which we culturally construct ‘nature’. Nature has been used and abused systematically under the capitalist imperative, and has taken on different roles and meanings according to the stages of capitalist development. At one level, one might say, and within the totalising tendencies of frameworks like Marxism, nature is thus integrated systematically, and for many, thoroughly. Yet Fraser’s naming of these sources of value as ‘preconditions’ and as ‘constitutive’ supports of capitalist economy underline her other point: that these supports existed prior to capitalism as an historically emergent form, and, even if embedded diachronically within capitalist structures have a power and specificity that sits beyond the full reach of capitalist relations.

How Fraser’s chapter on democracy and the public realm now so under threat fits this schema is harder to see. While in many ways the liveliest chapter of all, as it focuses directly on contemporary democracy and politics, just what the relative independence here may be is not developed. Fraser does not make clear in what sense the ‘sphere’ of democracy and the public inheritance is equivalent to those other spheres of the doubly hidden abode.

It’s in this chapter that Fraser homes in on the legacies of neoliberalism and most directly names the form of capitalism that for her frames contemporary economic development: ‘financialised capitalism’, the chosen frame of theorists associated with New Left Review. Neoliberalism shifted industry away from US working-class heartlands, as in other Western nations, and she is sympathetic, unlike Hilary Clinton, to the ‘deplorables’. To fully institute this shift, global trade and other legal regimes were set in place to vastly advantage the Western powers and their corporate elites, even if ‘globalisation’ seemed to promise greater parity among the nations. On the home front, neoliberalism meant the cannibalising of public services, which were either killed off or repurposed by the private sector to produce a profit, both in care and incarceration.

But Fraser does not pull this discussion into line with her other chapters, and it is hard to see why ‘democracy’ or ‘the public’ are equivalent with nature, women’s work or ‘race’ as a source of hidden value. They may be unacknowledged conditions of capitalism’s modern functioning, and point to the achievements of civil society in taming the cannibal, but Fraser does not discuss the deep source of recalcitrance to exploitation here, and reverts, rather, to a discussion of the features of financialisation.

Fraser’s politics come alive when she is discussing neoliberalism and financialised capitalism. Here there are pointed critiques that seem to encompass the crucial, recognisable events and conflicts that mark our tempestuous time. But, rather centrally, it is not clear why, today, actual planetary demise is possible—why the conditions for at least the whole period of 10,000 years of human development are at a crossroads. This is no ‘ordinary’ capitalist reformation. Fraser herself suggests that cannabalisation in this realm can only go on for so long before there is collapse.

One might also point out that Fraser does not plumb the new sources of personal and cultural anxiety or whole realms of social life and connection that today distinguish the reconstruction of her hidden realms. Science and technology are mentioned perhaps twice, and only in passing. And yet their impact as techno-science today—an emergent formation and relatively autonomous field of new value, and of very significant destruction and recomposition of old ‘materials’—surely tells us something unique about our world today. The planet has suffered not simply from a shift in gear in capitalist development but rather from a refashioned engine of production that now offers to penetrate all of taken-for-granted nature, including our own. Those sources of otherness suggested in Fraser’s doubly hidden abode in this new scientific-productive complex will be directly drawn into production and offered widely for consumption by the subjects who must autonomously put their own selves together.

Consumption itself is strangely not present. The information and communications revolutions too are largely absent, when it is these that might again suggest the new lines and structures of contemporary social interaction and socialisation, and their disorders, as constitutive of the new. Bio-tech, as just one instance, has delivered and promises more fundamental change in birth technologies and body transformation, and offers material ‘proof’ that nature is anything we might want it to be, because we can so thoroughly manipulate it, create it and purchase it.

But I do want to hang onto something in Fraser’s view of the doubly hidden abode, and this is exactly that point around which she is not clear. Yes the capitalist imperative overrides other logics, and shapes the socio-material world according to its own logic. But just what is it overriding; what constitutes the relative singularity of these realms such that Fraser resorts to her spatial metaphor?

If they are out of place and other to the central logic of capitalism, what does their difference inhere in, and how might it be conceptualised? And why are they now so centrally in frame unless to do with the material reality of that new form of techno-capitalism that has already begun to undo them; to transfer them out of the realm of both the historical taken for granted, but also the given limits of the natural as human beings have always known them? What this difference or otherness inheres in cannot be readily developed in Fraser’s framework—there is no philosophy that might take the question up, no anthropology that might illuminate the workings of those realms, but most importantly, there is no exploration of the dominant logic of our period and the agents that carry it forward.

These omissions are expressive of the limits of Fraser’s approach, however it complexifies Marxism, for the implicit alternative that exists behind the ever-multiplying layers of expropriation and exploitation is so distanced as to seem an impossible idyll. In fact, the realms Fraser identifies are accessed in a new purity by an ultra-high-tech civilisation, having thrown off the capitalist contents of modernity and shifted to a high-tech form. The promise of this form is all the more glittering because the Left’s capacity to understand such an emergence has never been weaker. Underneath the ‘cannibalisation’ of all life—ultimately an inadequate metaphor for what is taking place—is a techno-scientific process that renders those realms of hidden value, through successive scientific abstractions, available and commodifiable. It is this master process, and the people who create it, that need to be our focus.

About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

More articles by Alison Caddick

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #16


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