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Time to Decide

by Nancy Fraser and Michael Hardt Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 at 3:47 PM

"Nature and people are `fictional commodities. When they submit completely to market mechanisms and when markets are not regulated, this leads to people dying who don't find buyers for their labor power..."


The political scientist Nancy Fraser on the economic historian Karl Polanyi, “Occupy Wall Street,” related movements and the radicalization of neoliberalism

[This interview with American political scientist and guest professor at the Free University of Berlin Nancy Fraser published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 12/19/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/36/36048/1.html.]

Can societies, nature and persons be something other than commodities? How far can they be subject to the fluctuations of supply and demand without destroying society? Considering the worldwide economic crisis, the American political scientist Nancy Fraser [1] seeks answers to this question. In the next two years Fraser – one of the most influential intellectuals of our time [2] – will teach as a guest professor at the Free University of Berlin. She has published on the normative foundations of democracy, social movements, feminism and questions of political theory.]

Professor Fraser, market structures have been introduced in more and more areas in the “neoliberal decades” since the 1980s. Our disgust over this development is expressed in slogans like “education is not a commodity!” and “water is not a commodity!” But many do not have a convincing answer to the question why these things should not be commodities. What is really the problem?

Nancy Fraser: Nature and people are “fictional commodities,” so to speak. They can be treated as though they were commodities, as though they could be reduced to the production factors “land” and “working power.” But when they submit completely to market mechanisms and when markets are not regulated, this leads to people dying who don’t find buyers for their labor power. The foundations of a capitalist society are destroyed. I refer to the economic historian Karl Polanyi who developed this term “fictional commodity” in his great critique of liberalism in “The Great Transformation.”

Still the trade with human labor power, currency speculation and the sale of natural resources are everyday facts. What is fictional about this?

Nancy Fraser: The foundations for the production of goods are themselves treated as commodities. Natural resources and the social reproduction of labor power are necessary prerequisites for the production and exchange of goods. Money according to Polanyi is also a fictional commodity because stable currency is another prerequisite for capitalist production. Polanyi believed the liberalism of the 19th century undermined the foundations of the world market since the markets for land and labor power are not regulated. That they should regulate themselves led to the world wars and fascism.

Polanyi argues ontologically, so to speak, not historically. For him, a commodity is something that is manufactured to be sold. This is obviously not true for persons, nature or money. From my perspective, defining fictional goods structurally is more sensible. The fiction is that they cannot be commodities in the long term. Polanyi’s ideas can help explain the destructive phenomena in the ecological and social crisis today that are also expressed in the “financialization” and derivative trade that could lead the world economy into a crash.

In “The Great Transformation,” Karl Polanyi also described the social forces that in the 19th century tried to push back and enclose the markets, so to speak. Are there contemporary equivalents?

Nancy Fraser: To answer that question, I must go back a bit. Polanyi believed the history of the 19th century followed a very specific pattern, a “twofold movement.” Ultimately two great social projects were fought – liberalism and free trade on one side and diverse counter-movements on the other side. To this “self-defense of society,” he counted all forms and movements against the expansion of market structures.

The emancipation movements were often directed against oppressive forms of “social protection” – and frequently found themselves in alliances with free trade advocates. Here is one example. Colonialism was a defense mechanism preserving European industries and populations from the worst effects of worldwide free trade by shifting “follow-up costs” to the colonies. As another example, laws -prohibited women from certain kinds of paid labor and prevented them from being economic actors with equal rights since they could not sign contracts for example. While that was certainly a “protection from the market,” it also fortified the rule of men in a modern form. As a feminist, I am instinctively distrustful when someone says he wants to “protect” me.

Polanyi had no illusions about the historical movement against the deregulation of markets; he also included nationalist protectionist movements. As in the 19th century, many protectionist counter-movements now arise of which some are rather unsympathetic hierarchical movements against migrants for example that want to push back market forces at the expense of other people…

In a 2010 lecture [3], you developed these ideas. Why do you believe the party of emancipation must be considered?

Nancy Fraser: With this expanded system, we can better understand the historical development. As mentioned, very different alliances and confrontations are possible. Emancipatory movements have occasionally allied with the free trade party and on other occasions with movements for social protection. In the past decades, they tended to stand more on the side of expansion of market relations, sometimes even against their original intentions. Since the 1960s, feminism, for example, criticized the “family wage” and the sexist division of labor in which the male “breadwinner” earned and women were excluded from good-paying paid labor.

The reverse side of the opening of the labor markets for women is the increasing commercialization of housework and the socialization of children. The dominant feminist school formed a de facto alliance [4] with neoliberalism.

Occupy Wall Street [5] is very interesting in this connection. In the US, the movement has two central slogans: “We are the 99 percent” with the underlying demand for redistribution and “This is what democracy looks like!” This slogan is directed against the erosion of the political system in which participation only consists in casting votes in general elections and only the interests of businesses are protected. Central interests of the population do not generally appear in the media system. The movement envisions a very new form of democracy. The Occupy movement emphasizes social protection and emancipation.


You once said “the market was tamed by politics between the end of the 2nd World War to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s and “politics was tamed by the market” afterwards. A saying of the British head of government Margaret Thatcher is symptomatic for the latter constellation: “There is no alternative!” Today the German head of state speaks of “market-conforming democracy.” In spite of the present movements, we are witnessing more a radicalization of neoliberal policy than a taming.

Nancy Fraser: Absolutely! It is a remarkable spectacle how the stock markets decide over the fate of whole countries and regularly dictate social policy to governments. Simultaneously the counter-movements are often reactionary and partly even fascist.

My idea of the “threefold movement” comes into play here. The project of social protection may not be left to the rightwing. We need a synthesis of the legitimate desires for freedom from discrimination and the desire for protection. This also means we must go beyond the framework of sovereign nation states that characterized politics since the Westphalia Peace. A new worldwide institutional regulation of the financial markets is a basic prerequisite.

Karl Polanyi wrote “The Great Transformation” during the 2nd World War. The book reflects the great catastrophes of the 20th century, war and mass extermination. Do you think a similar collapse of the world market and subsequent uncontrolled violence is possible again?

Nancy Fraser: That possibility cannot be excluded. In 2008 the financial markets came to the edge of collapse and this danger still exists. In addition the global ecological dimension of the crisis may have catastrophic consequences. Everywhere in the world people face the question how should life continue. We are really n a crisis in the original sense of the word – at a turning point. The time of decision is at hand.













Video: Michael Hardt: “What to do with a crisis,” Dec 12, 2011, Rosa Luxemburg lecture, 1 hr. 20 min


“Capital rule is always based on the production of subjectivities. The current social crisis accompanying the economic crisis is characterized by four figures of subjectivity: the indebted, mediatized, securitized and represented. The indebted are instrumentalized by the media. Debt has become universal and inevitable. Debt reveals inequality, the relation of debtor and creditor. In the exploited, the indebted are masked. The myth of equal exchange mystifies the inequality. The figure of the exploited shifts to the figure of the indebted...”

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