Can We Understand Populism Without Calling it Fascist? A Conversation with Nancy Fraser

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Shray Mehta is an MPhil Scholar at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi.
5 June 2018

In this conversation, Nancy Fraser explains how the left's agenda of social justice was hijacked by what she calls “progressive neo-liberalism,” while exploring how a nuanced Marxist political economy can guide the left to win back the masses by finding an agenda fitting our times.

Nancy Fraser is the Henry and Louise A Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research. She works on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought.​


On the Rise of Populism

Shray Mehta: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity for this conversation. There are several issues that I wish to discuss with you and I am keen on starting with something that could perhaps provide an entry point to those. I think beginning with the issue of rise of populism could be a good place to start. 

The world is seeing an alarming increase in the rise of populist leaders and the pattern seems to be repeating itself often enough across the spectrum and is not restricted to either the global North or the global South. How can one contextualise this rise of populism as a world historic moment? Does it have a systemic dynamic which is beyond nations and is located in the international economy and a crisis in capitalism? 

Nancy Fraser: Populism is situated in a world historic dynamic. It signals a hegemonic crisis of capitalism—or rather, a hegemonic crisis of the specific form of capitalism we inhabit today: globalising, neo-liberal, and financialised. This financialised–capitalist regime supplanted the previous state-managed variety and decimated whatever gains the working classes had won from the latter. Populism is, in large measure, a revolt of those classes against financialised capitalism and the political forces that imposed it. To understand the revolt, one must understand the previous hegemonic bloc that it is rejecting. I have called that bloc “progressive neo-liberalism.” As a ruling formation, progressive neo-liberalism was centred in the most powerful states of the global north but also had outposts elsewhere, including in South Asia. Examples include Tony Blair’s New Labour, Clinton’s New Democratic Party, the Socialist Party in France, and the last several Congress governments in India. 

What is specific about “progressive neo-liberalism” is that it combines regressive, liberalising, economic policies with seemingly progressive recognition policies. Its political economy centres on “free trade” (which is really the free movement of capital) and on deregulated finance (which empowers investors, central bankers, and global financial institutions to dictate austerity policies to the state by fiat and the weapon of debt). Meanwhile, its recognition side centres on liberal understandings of multiculturalism, environmentalism, and women’s and LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer] rights. Entirely compatible with neo-liberal financialisation, these understandings are meritocratic as opposed to egalitarian. Targeting “discrimination,” they seek to ensure that a few “talented” individuals from “under-represented groups” can rise to the top of the corporate hierarchy and achieve positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class! What is not mentioned, however, is that while these few “crack the glass ceiling,” everyone else remains stuck in the basement. In effect, progressive neoliberalism articulated a regressive economic policy with a seemingly progressive recognition policy. The progressive recognition side has served as an alibi for the regressive economic side. It has enabled neo-liberalism to present itself as cosmopolitan, emancipatory, forward-looking, and morally advanced—all in contrast to the seemingly parochial, backward, and benighted working classes. 

Progressive neo-liberalism was hegemonic for a couple of decades. Presiding over vast increases in inequality, it delivered a bonanza chiefly to the global 1%, but also to the professional managerial stratum. What got thrown under the bus were the northern working classes, which had benefited from social democracy; southern peasants, who suffered renewed dispossession by debt on a massive scale; and a swelling urban precariat throughout the world. What you've called populism is a revolt of these strata against progressive neo-liberalism. In voting for Trump, Brexit, Modi, and the Five Star Movement in Italy, they have declared their refusal to continue to play their assigned part as sacrificial lambs in a regime that has nothing to offer them. 

Shray Mehta: There is often a hurry to dismiss populist movements as “fascist” as soon as they start articulating their demands. However, if one reads them as an articulation of people’s concerns against continuing systemic apathy, one can see a more complex picture appearing. For instance, the rise of Trump is based to some extent on the support of a voter base which is hastily dismissed as “racist white men,” even though they might have voted for Obama in the last two elections. In a different context, in India, a similar logic functions and the rise of Hindutva is dismissed as fascist without historicising it in the neo-liberal policies of the previous Congress government. So, how do you read this complete dismissal of the people’s concerns in the public discourse on the one hand and the labelling of the popular reaction as fascist [on the other]?  

Nancy Fraser: I am in agreement with your take on this issue. Liberalism has a long history of trying to delegitimise opposition to it—stigmatising its opponents as, for example, “Stalinist,” “fascist,” whatever. That is definitely what is happening now with respect to the term “populism.” That word is widely used by liberals today to dismiss as illegitimate the popular forces that are now rebelling against their rule. But you are right, this is a defensive tactic on the part of the defenders of progressive neo-liberalism. In stigmatising the opposition, they hope to resurrect their project. In the United States (US) they are desperately searching for a new leader, more appealing than Hillary Clinton, under whom they can restore a new version of progressive neo-liberalism. That’s the agenda of a large part of the anti-Trump “resistance.” I don’t know enough about Indian politics to be sure, but I’m guessing that the Congress party is using similar tactics in hopes of regaining power. 

Certainly, I would never endorse Trump or Modi—that goes without saying. Nevertheless, I am not unhappy that those who have been screwed by progressive neo-liberalism are rising up against it. In some cases, of course, the form their rebellion takes is problematic. Scapegoating immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Jews, and others, they often mistake the true cause of their troubles. But it is counterproductive to simply dismiss them as irredeemable racists and Islamophobes. To assume that at the outset is to surrender any possibility of winning them to the left, whether to left wing populism or democratic socialism. 

Moreover, the idea that all these voters are nothing but card-carrying racists does not square with the data. In the US, as you said, eight and a half million people who voted for Obama in 2012 turned around and voted for Trump in 2016. Many of these were working class people in rustbelt communities, who suffered massively from deindustrialisation, precarisation, and a major epidemic of opioid addiction, orchestrated by big pharma. They were the ones who delivered the Presidency to Trump. In both elections, 2012 and 2016, they voted against neo-liberal economicsfirst, for Obama, who campaigned from the left, adopting the rhetoric of “Occupy Wall Street;” and then, for Trump, who campaigned not only on exclusionary recognition, but also on populist economics. What this shows is that identity issues were not first and foremost on these voters’ minds. On those questions, they were quite fickle, going this way or that, according to the choices on offer. Where they were consistent, by contrast, was in rejecting offshoring, “free trade,” and financialisation; in supporting social protection, full employment, and living wages. The same is true, by the way, in the United Kingdom (UK). Many working class people from the north of England who voted for Brexit now strongly support Jeremy Corbyn. In France, too, there was a lot of switching back and forth between the National Front and the left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. 

My point is that all these voters (and others!) have legitimate grievances against progressive neo-liberalism. Far from dismissing them as racists, the left must validate their grievances. Far from assuming that they are hopeless, we must start from the premise that many right-populist voters are in principle winnable to the left. We need to woo them, validating their grievances and offering them an alternative analysis of the true cause of their problems and an alternative proposal for solving them.

Shray Mehta: On this point of offering an alternative explanation and an alternative vision, historically, this is not the first time that this switching of support between the left and the right has happened. We know that there is historic precedent of this. The right is able to make a causal link between the systemic problems and social groups like Jews, Muslims or Immigrants to suggest that targeting them would solve the problems of jobs and this appeals to people. Even though the left tries to intervene, the alternative vision of the left looks very utopian to the people. Do you feel that there is a crucial lacuna that stays with the left in this regard? 

Nancy Fraser: Yes, I agree. There surely is a programmatic lacuna on the left. This is due in part to the demise of Soviet Communism, which had the unfortunate effect of delegitimising not only that sclerotic regime, but ideas of socialism and social egalitarianism more generally. The resulting atmosphere greatly benefited neo-liberals, while intimidating and demoralising the left. 

But that is not the whole story. In this climate, a significant chunk of what might have been left opinion has drifted instead towards liberalism. Just think of liberal feminism, liberal anti-racism, liberal multiculturalism, “green capitalism,” and so on. These are today the dominant currents of new social movements whose origins were, if not squarely left, at least leftish or proto-left. Today, however, they lack even the slightest idea of a structural transformation or an alternative political economy. Far from seeking to abolish social hierarchy, their whole mindset is aimed at getting more women, gays, and people of colour into its top ranks. Certainly, in the US but also elsewhere, the left has been colonised by liberalism. 

In my view, the best way to rebuild the left is resurrect the old idea of “transitional socialist programme” and give it new content, appropriate to the 21st century. Today, we cannot start out just by telling people that we are going to socialise the means of production and then they will get secure, good-paying jobs. This rhetoric has run its course. What we need, rather, is what André Gorz called “non-reformist reforms.” These improve people’s lives in the here and now while also working in a counter-systemic direction, in part by tilting the balance of class power to the detriment of capital. Moreover, such reforms cannot be focused exclusively on production and paid work. They need equally to address the social organisation of reproduction—the provision of education, housing, medical care, childcare, elder care, a healthy environment, water, utilities, transportation, carbon emissions—and the unwaged labour that sustains families and broader social bonds. 

Through far from perfect, the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US had some ideas that pointed in this direction. Above and beyond raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, Sanders campaigned for “Medicare for all,” free college tuition, criminal justice reform, reproductive freedom, and breaking up the big banks—all of which he connected to jobs. His ideas were not fully developed, to be sure. And they were arguably more social-democratic than democratic socialist. But they represented the first stirrings at a left-populist alternative in the US.  

The left also needs to think about finance and banking. One of the most interesting thinkers on this subject is Robin Blackburn, who contends that finance should become a public utility, like electricity used to be, meaning that it should be publicly owned and allocated. Decisions about credit, where to invest, and what projects to fund, should be made on the basis not of the rate of return, but of social value and utility. And they should be made democratically—through elected boards charged with representing communities and other stakeholders. That is a very interesting idea, because we do, of course, need a credit system. Abolishing banks and global financial institutions is not the answer. What is needed, rather, is to socialise finance. 

Moreover, this is the perfect time to develop a left programme for finance. Many people are open now to this problem. After all, that’s what Occupy Wall Street was mainly about. Everybody knows that the investment firms are back to their old tricks and that nothing has been done in the way of structural reform to prevent a global financial meltdown in the near future. Americans are well aware that Obama used our tax monies to bail out the very banks whose predatory schemes nearly crashed the global economy, but did nothing at all to help the 10 million people who lost their home in the mortgage foreclosure crisis. There is no question that many are open to rethinking this system. On this subject neither the right nor the centre has anything to offer, so it’s a great opportunity for the left.

On the Emancipatory Potential of Capitalism

Shray Mehta: I wish to turn our attention now to some theoretical concerns. In your paper titled “Marx’s Hidden Abode” in the New Left Review, you have argued at length about how value is produced not by just productive labour but also by labour that is not accounted for. The latter could be something that, in fact, supports and sustains the former. 

At one point you suggest that one part of the expansion of capitalism is the “emancipatory potential of capitalism.” This “emancipatory potential” is a much debated issue in Marxist thought and it has been argued that it is often the unfree labour that gets chained further through the dialectics of “double freedom” of capitalism. In this context how can one understand capitalism’s emancipatory potential with regard to unfree labour? 

Nancy Fraser: The phrase “double freedom” is ironic. The upside has to do with being mobile and having the right to “voluntarily” enter into a labour contract. But as you know, it carries a downside. In becoming free to sell one’s labour power, one has also been freed from—which is to say, deprived of—access to the means of subsistence and the means of production. Marx stressed that proletarians have been “freed” from access to land, tools, raw materials, and other assets they would need to organise their own work and satisfy their needs. As a result, they have no choice but to enter into a labour contract with a capitalist. The upside of freedom is severely compromised, if not simply illusory.

Freedom in capitalism is in effect a double-edged sword. If one is a slave or a serf, the ability to become a wage worker is certainly a step up, as Marx himself often stressed. But it does not mean that one becomes free in a full and robust sense. Rather, the proletarian becomes subject to a different form of domination, a more impersonal, more abstract domination. So, I would not overstate the emancipatory potential of capitalism, but I would not ignore it either. 

The key point, however, is something else: capitalism is not a uniform system. It does not treat everyone in the same way at the same time. Even as it “emancipates” some from dependency and coerced labour and turns them into doubly free proletarians, it leaves others—many more others, actually—in traditional contexts and forms of domination. Or, rather, it remakes those traditional contexts and forms in new, and often highly oppressive ways. 

In fact, I have recently argued, in my Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge lecture, that the exploitation of “free workers” is closely tied up with, indeed depends on, the expropriation of dependent “others.” What I mean by expropriation is the seizure of subjugated people’s assets (their labour, land, animals, tools, children, and bodies) and the funnelling of those confiscated assets into the circuits of capital accumulation. Understood this way, expropriation differs sharply from exploitation. Exploitation is mediated by a wage contract: the exploited worker “freely” exchanges her labour power for wages that are supposed to cover the average socially necessary costs of her reproduction. Expropriation, by contrast, dispenses with the fig leaf of consent and brutally seizes property and persons without recompense—whether by military force or by debt. My idea is like those of Rosa Luxembourg and David Harvey: exploitation alone could not sustain capital accumulation over time. The latter depends, rather, on continuing inputs from expropriation. So the two “exes” are intertwined. And it is the combined process of exploitation and expropriation that creates that surplus value. 

This idea is beautifully illustrated in a phrase by Jason Moore. He says, “Behind Manchester stands Mississippi.” What that means is that the highly profitable textile industry of Manchester that Engels wrote about would not have been profitable without the cheap cotton supplied through enslaved labour from the Americas. I’m tempted to add a third M for Mumbai by the way, to signal the important role played in Manchester’s rise by the calculated destruction by the British of Indian textile manufacturing. Here is a case where expropriation is a condition for the possibility of profitable exploitation. Capitalism plays a double game with people, assigning some to “mere” exploitation while condemning others to brutal expropriation, a distinction that has been associated historically with empire and race. So, I reject the claim, often attributed to Marx, that value is produced only by wage labour. There are lots of other, unwaged inputs into the process, including the social-reproductive work of women, without which wage labour would be not possible. 

Shray Mehta: To further understand this, could you please explain this dynamic of the emancipatory potential of capitalism keeping the “periphery” economies in mind. Do you think one can continue to think of them as periphery in the context of neo-liberalism which seems to provide a complete freedom to capital while restricting labour on national grounds?

Nancy Fraser: The language of “core and periphery” makes less sense now than it did in earlier periods, but we are still struggling to find a satisfactory alternative. Proponents of world systems theory speak of semi-peripheral countries strategising to move up the value-added ladder of commodity production. But even that is not fully adequate to a situation in which industry is being relocated on a massive scale from the historic core to the so-called BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa]. Given the weight of the latter countries’ economies, it’s hard to call them “semi-peripheral,” let alone “peripheral.” What complicates the situation further is that, despite their economic heft, the BRICS countries are not (yet?) in a position to assert themselves as global powers on the world stage. Rather, a declining economic power (the US) still (so far) plays the role of global hegemon, despite its plummeting moral credibility and its shift in status to being a debtor nation. Where all this is headed remains unclear, and much depends on China. But however things play out, we will need to develop new vocabularies and frameworks to grasp a new historical situation.

Still, one thing is already clear: there has been a tremendous shift in the relationship between exploitation and expropriation in financialised capitalism. This is thanks in large part to the relocation of manufacturing away from the historic core and to the universalisation of expropriation by debt. The latter is obvious in the case of land dispossession and structural adjustment programmes that impose loan conditionalities on the states of the global South. Governments everywhere from Latin America, to Africa, to Greece have had to cut social spending and open their markets to foreign capital, vampirising their people for capital’s benefit. In these cases, debt is a vehicle of expropriation in the (former) periphery and semi-periphery, even as those regions are also becoming primary sites of exploitation. 

At the same time, expropriation is on the rise in the historic “core.” As low-wage precarious service work supplants unionised industrial labour, capital pays its workers less than the socially necessary cost of their reproduction. Yet it still needs those workers to do double duty as consumers. So, what to do? The solution is ballooning consumer debt that enables people to buy cheap stuff produced elsewhere. Here, too, expropriation feeds off those who are also exploited at “McJobs.” 

So this is a new constellation, one that scrambles the old exploitation/expropriation division. It used to be that most exploitation occurred in the historic core, while most expropriation was located in the former periphery. But that is no longer the case. Now the two exes do not form an either/or but a both/and. No longer mutually exclusive alternatives, they are found in close proximity; often the very same people experience both. 

Now, you asked about the implications of this for emancipation. This is, in my view, the key question for the left in our time. What follows politically from the fact that capitalism no longer assigns exploitation to one social group or region and expropriation to another group or region? When that was the case, the “free” exploited citizen-workers of the core could easily dissociate their aims and struggles from those of the subjugated, racialised expropriated subjects of the periphery. And that weakened the forces of emancipation, while enabling divide-and-rule. Now, however, almost everyone is being exploited and expropriated simultaneously. So, it looks as if the material basis for those old intra-working-class political divisions is disappearing. In theory, this should open up prospects for new and expanded alliances. If those who suffer from them could now come to understand that expropriation and exploitation are two analytically distinct but practically entwined elements of a single capitalist system, which is itself the root cause of most of their sufferings, then they might conclude that they share a common enemy and should join forces. But that outcome is neither automatic nor guaranteed. For now, at least, the shifts associated with financialised capitalism are spawning paranoia and anxiety, which lead in turn to exacerbated forms of chauvinism, including in the right wing populisms we discussed at the outset. 

In fact, we've now come full circle in this conversation to where we began, after hopefully having achieved a deeper understanding. But I must stress again now what I said before. Even though expanded solidarities will not be generated automatically, by the sheer fact of structural change, they might still be created politically, through left wing political interventions. These, as I said before, must firmly reject the scare-tactical games that liberalism plays with the word “populism.” Unafraid of that word, and resolved to win over those now drawn to its right wing variants, we must mount our own structural-systemic left wing critique of progressive neo-liberalism and our own transformative vision of an emancipatory alternative. Breaking definitively both with neo-liberal economics and with the various politics of recognition that have lately supported it, we must cast off not just exclusionary ethnonationalism, but also liberal-meritocratic individualism. Only by joining a robustly egalitarian politics of distribution to a substantively inclusive, class-sensitive politics of recognition can we build a counterhegemonic bloc that could lead us beyond the current crisis to a better world.

This interview was conducted in March 2018 when Nancy Fraser was invited by the Department of Sociology, South Asian University to deliver the Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge Lecture 2018 on “Race, Empire, Capitalism: Theorising the Nexus.” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, South Asia supported her visit.

The interviewer would like to thank Ravi Kumar, Chairperson, Department of Sociology for facilitating this interview.

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Shray Mehta is an MPhil Scholar at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi.
5 June 2018