Woman holding “Capitalism is killing us” sign at Extinction Rebellion protest on William Jolly Bridge. Image credit: Alex Bee / Shutterstock

In a democratic system, we don’t have to allow corporations to run our lives, make us work harder for less, profit from poverty, siphon those profits upwards, and pay no taxes: capitalism is broken, and we need a road map to get ourselves out of this mess. In Episode 21 of the Political Junkie podcast, Public Seminar’s co-executive editor Claire Potter sat down with New School for Social Research political theorist Nancy Fraser to discuss her latest book, Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet—and What We Can Do About It (Verso, 2022), and how movements can expand the socialist vision by weaving critical race, feminist, indigenous, queer, labor, and climate politics together to help us learn how to stand as one to make a better, and survivable, world. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length: you can listen to the original interview as a podcast here.

Claire Potter: Cannibal Capitalism was almost finished before the pandemic started; then, it seems like the pandemic provided a perfect illustration of what the book was about. Can you describe that moment where you were at your desk, the world was locking down, and the crisis that you imagined in this book was actually happening?

Nancy Fraser: I remember it very vividly. I was in Vermont for much of the pandemic, and I was locked down in my house. I was desperately trying to get supplies of masks and other PPE. I was watching on TV and listening on the radio to what was going on in Queens: this horrific holocaust of people, especially elderly people; the non-availability of ventilators; the healthcare professionals in the hospitals, having to wear masks over and over and over again. 

It just struck me that there were so many things going on here that I had been writing about for the last couple of years, and the pandemic was a kind of perfect storm in which a number of different crisis points came together. It was a real convergence point. 

One thing was the virus itself: Where did it come from? We don’t know the exact answer to that question yet. There are competing theories, but one thing is clear: tropical deforestation and climate change caused enormous species migrations. All sorts of animals—bats and other animals that had not been in close contact with one another—were suddenly thrown together, as they were forced to seek new habitats. 

So, we got lots of what the scientists call “zoonotic transfers”: those leaps of pathogens from one species to another. This is, by the way, how humans began to get AIDS, Ebola, MERS, and SARS—COVID is another one of these transfers of pathogens that we never had to deal with before and had no immunity to. That phenomenon was largely due to tropical deforestation on the one side and climate change on the other.

Both of those things come to us courtesy of capitalism, of this mad rush to develop at all costs these invasions into wilderness areas, pumping out greenhouse gases, which caused the warming. So, right away, COVID was related to the ecological strand of our present crisis. And that isn’t over. That’s going to continue. There will be more pandemics as we continue to cut down rainforests, pave over wilderness areas, and force more and more of these zoonotic transfers.

Potter: One of the points you make very effectively in the book is that the history of capitalism is the history of crisis; crisis is built into capitalism. You also suggest that, while we should all still be reading Marx, Marx could not anticipate the nature of these twenty-first-century crises. I wonder if you could first talk to us about Marx’s theory of capitalism, and then about how the idea of “cannibal capitalism” replaces Marxist theory.

Fraser: First off, it’s a little difficult to talk about Marxist theory: it’s quite complicated and there are many different interpretations of it. I think a careful reading would show that he was a lot hipper to some of the stuff I’m talking about than would normally be understood. 

So, instead of talking about Marx himself, I prefer to talk about the doctrine that was codified as Marxism, which informed all the labor movements and socialist parties. It was a doctrine that located the trouble inside the economic realm within capitalist society, and that stressed contradictions within that realm, which had to do with the production of too much capital, with no place to be invested; with not paying high enough wages for people to buy this stuff. And the resulting periodic depressions, stock market crashes, and mass unemployment—that’s what we think of as capitalist crisis: economic crisis caused by these contradictions internal to the economic sphere.

I don’t have any argument against that, but my claim is that that’s not all there is to it. There are further forms of crisis, or tendencies to crisis, that are built into capitalist societies. And these have to do with other kinds of contradictions—not ones within the economy, but rather between the economy and other spheres or arenas of life. 

I associate that idea with the “other” Karl, Karl Polanyi.  What I’m trying to do is synthesize the two Karls: that’s how I describe my work. Polanyi’s idea was that the built-in drive to expand the economy is always coming into contradiction with, or threatening to destabilize, and even to destroy, other things that are necessary for the economy to exist, but that exist outside the formal economy. They’re still within capitalist society, but they’re not in the economy of capitalist society.

One of these is nature. If you don’t have a sustainable, natural eco-systemic biosphere, you’re not going to have energy; you’re not going to have raw materials; you’re not going to have the general conditions that you need, like breathable air, drinkable water, and fertile soil. You could say the capitalist economy depends on those things yet it is also pushing the envelope—always driving in ways that endanger them, that destabilize them. That’s one example of what I call an inter-realm contradiction, as opposed to an intra-realm contradiction. Capitalism has a built-in tendency not only to economic crisis, but also to environmental crisis.

I could tell a parallel story about several other realms. I think there’s a built-in tendency for crisis of care,  of social reproduction. There’s a built-in political crisis tendency, and there’s a built-in crisis of colonial racial imperial injustice. And this has to do with the way the economic expansionist drive endangers its own conditions of possibility, conditions which are outside it. 

And by the way, back to your first point, the pandemic really revealed how important social reproductive work was, and what happened when things went kerflooey with the pandemic and it suddenly all was in the home with all the extra work of schooling and so on, thrown on top of it.

Potter: One of the things I couldn’t stop thinking about as I was reading Cannibal Capitalism were the ways in which you, as a prominent feminist in the political theory community, were showing us a different path to thinking about what feminist interventions in social inequality could look like.

Fraser: The problem, as I see it in the United States at least, is the real dominance within feminism of a kind of liberal perspective, which is essentially meritocratic as opposed to egalitarian. It’s all about removing discriminatory obstacles that prevent talented women from rising to the full extent of their talent. 

This has benefited some people—I would even count myself among them—but it really doesn’t do much for the mass of poor and working class women, for women of color and lower-middle-class women, because it’s not good enough to say women should be equal to the men of their own class and race. Feminism should be for a more egalitarian society that can benefit the overwhelming majority of women, and not just the few born with the right skin color, the right cultural capital from their families, and the right education opportunities. 

I’m a co-author of another book, Feminism for the 99%: we [Fraser and co-authors Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya] were inspired by Occupy and by the Bernie Sanders campaign to say, look, there’s another kind of feminism here, and it’s one that doesn’t separate so-called gender issues from other issues like labor, the environment, racial injustice, or democracy. Cannibal Capitalism, like Feminism for the 99%, is aimed at creating a kind of a map for people who are interested in activism.

Everybody is affected by this severe crisis that we’re in, but not everyone is affected in the same way. For some people, sexual harassment at work is the most pressing, urgent issue. For others, it’s climate change. For others, it’s having their children shot down in the streets by police. You can’t say that one is more urgent than another, it really depends on where you are. 

But all of these things are rooted in the same social system: capitalism, and in the sense that I’m analyzing it, cannibal capitalism, not that orthodox, Marxian picture. I hope that what I’ve done in this book is to begin to create the outlines of a map of how that system works, and how it lies at the root of all of these issues, so that people can get a sense, different from the one we get from liberal feminism, of who our potential allies are and who the real enemy is. 

Also, if the message could be gotten to them, it could help enlighten the right-wing, populist, white, working-class people who are becoming intensely white supremacist. It could show them something important about who their real enemies are, and who they could conceivably ally with to build a stronger, non-racist movement to change things.

Potter: One of the conversations that the pandemic started was about a four-day work week and why we work in offices. As a society, we’re talking about why people actually like working at home, and why they think it’s more efficient and friendlier to do that. Do you think those conversations will continue, and do you think they’ll actually force changes in the system?

Fraser: I hope they’ll continue. I do think we had experiences that provoked a lot of reflection about what the system is and how it works. Something else that we learned from the pandemic is who the essential workers are. Capitalist labor markets are a very poor reckoning of what is essential and what is not. 

Because, it turned out, if you leave aside the medical professionals: Who are the essential workers? Amazon distribution workers, food deliverers, slaughterhouse workers, and other agricultural workers—in other words, those workers are very low paid, often workers of color, and often immigrants. These essential workers were basically treated as disposable workers. They were sent out onto the front lines to face infection.

Will things change? Will people put these learned lessons to work? There are no guarantees at all. 

Things are not going well in this country and in many other places in terms of what politics is. It’s not just that we have all the very regressive, reactionary, persecutory forms of politics that we know as Trumpism, MAGA, right-wing politics, and such. It’s also that liberal corporate elites are missing in action on these issues. They will defend gay marriage; they will advocate for “cracking the glass ceiling.” They will defend that elite kind of meritocratic progressivism—but they will not defend the living standards of the working classes. So, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. We have two options on offer for our politics, neither of which will help us.

Of course, we are horrified by the Trumpists and many of us are tempted, therefore, to sort of scurry back to the liberals—but we actually really need a third option. At this moment, in the absence of a candidate like Bernie Sanders, I don’t know where that’s going to come from. 

There’s lots of social movement activism, but it isn’t coalescing. That’s what I was trying to do in this book: I was trying to create a map that would suggest the possibility of much broader alliances that could overcome fragmentation and dispersal.

Potter: Aside from that important road map, why should our readers want to read Cannibal Capitalism now?

Fraser: What this book can offer is an analysis of why life is so difficult and so painful for many of us today. It’s not going to tell you that it’s difficult and painful. You already know that, if you’re at all tempted to pick up this book. But it might help you get a deeper grasp of why the social system is, in a non-accidental way, producing so much suffering and difficulty: so much time crunch, so much precarity in our livelihoods, so much strain on our relationships, and such bad politics.

Nancy Fraser is the Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research. Her latest book is Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet—and What We Can Do About It (Verso, 2022).

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).