Feminism, the Frankfurt School, and Nancy Fraser

By Georgia WarnkeAugust 4, 2013

Feminism, the Frankfurt School, and Nancy Fraser

Fortunes of Feminism by Nancy Fraser

Triptych image: Jesse Chehak, "Blame the Sun"


WHEN MAX HORKHEIMER took over the Institute for Social Research in 1930 and brought together a group of thinkers that included Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse in what would become known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, they had no inkling that later generations of the school would include feminists. Yet in Fortunes of Feminism, Nancy Fraser looks back at the history of second-wave feminism while being, at the same time, a prominent second-wave feminist and a prominent member of the Frankfurt School’s third generation. She has a somewhat easier time than Horkheimer and Adorno. When they began their work, they had long ago given up on the proletariat revolution that Marx had predicted. Not only had the European working class failed to execute their “historic task” of ushering in socialism, many were rapidly becoming fascists. Much of the Frankfurt School’s initial efforts, then, were spent deriving the position from which a critical theory of society was at all possible. Marx and Lukács thought they could take up the standpoint of the proletariat to decipher the future of capitalism and predict its demise, but how did one ground a critical theory of society once one gave up on the working class? By the end of their lives, Horkheimer and Adorno had expanded their critique of capitalism into a critique of Western “instrumentalist” reason in general, thereby making it unclear not only from what standpoint they were speaking, but also to whom they were speaking.

For Fraser, Marx’s 1843 definition of a critical social theory remains more apt: “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” Critical theories, she thinks, take up explicitly partisan standpoints informed by particular social movements: in her case, second-wave feminism. The task of such theories is therefore two-fold. First, from their partisan perspectives, they must articulate the pathologies and injustices of capitalist societies and map the route toward overcoming those pathologies and injustices. Second, they must serve as the consciences of their own social movements, as sources for critical self-reflection. It goes without saying that Fraser’s view is not the only way to articulate the position of a critical social theory. Her comember in the Frankfurt School’s third generation, Axel Honneth, thinks it is a mistake to take one’s theoretical framework from whatever social movements happen to grab the existing social imagination. But as the previously published essays reprinted in Fortunes of Feminism make clear, Fraser sees in second-wave feminism a considerable series of insights into “the struggles and wishes of the age,” and in critical theory considerable contributions to feminism’s necessary self-criticism.

Fraser sees the trajectory of the second-wave feminism as a play in three acts. In her rendition, the first act is centered on the effort to expose and eliminate gender injustice in post-World War II capitalist societies. Inspired by liberalism, socialism, Marxism, and the like, feminists sought to eliminate legal, economic, and political barriers to women’s opportunities and to abolish their inequality with men. Nevertheless, feminism’s second act lost its way, Fraser thinks. Inspired now by Derrida, Lacan, and other pro-structuralists and in sync with the rise of neoliberal economics, feminists turned to cultural issues and identity politics. Indeed, rather than focusing on equality, they now demanded recognition for women’s difference from men and for their unique attitudes and strengths. This brings us to the present day and what Fraser perceives as the start of act three, for which she has high hopes. “We could see a reinvigorated feminism join other emancipatory forces aiming to subject runaway markets to democratic control,” she writes in her introduction. The reprinted essays that follow are representative contributions she has made to each of these acts.

In the first act, Fraser sees her role as being a critic of a significant lacuna within the tradition of critical theory: women’s subordination. The first essay in Fortunes of Feminism is the 1985 article, “What’s Critical about Critical Theory: The Case of Habermas and Gender.” Here Fraser examines the double analytic perspective that Jürgen Habermas, the most famous member of the Frankfurt School’s second generation, uses to clarify the tensions of post-World War II capitalist societies. Habermas argues that such societies can be seen as lifeworlds, on the one hand, and as systems, on the other. Under the former perspective, societies appear as contexts of shared traditions and common value orientations. These are the resources necessary to “symbolic integration,” or in other words, to the ability of members of the society to come to understandings with one another, coordinate their actions, and socialize succeeding generations. But societies can also be seen as self-regulating systems in which the integration of actions and intentions happen behind the backs of actors, as it were, in terms of the consequences of those actions and intentions. Here integration is non-direct and non-communicative, the result of the “invisible hand” of the economy, on the one hand, and the power embedded in the administrative state, on the other. Habermas does not think complex societies can do without such “system-functions;” nonetheless, he is concerned with the way they “colonize” or take over functions of the lifeworld: the bureaucratic imperatives of the administrative state and the monetary values of the economy intrude on lifeworld contexts, divorcing them from communicative contexts, and damaging them in the process. Consider, for example, the intrusion of economic imperatives into universities, their missions directed by market strategies and the intrusion of bureaucratic imperatives into people’s lives, now molded by the benefits they might receive. Foucault called the effects of these imperatives “normalizing.”

For Habermas, the family is a prime lifeworld context, one increasingly encroached upon by the constraints of the public economy and normalizing bureaucratic imperatives. Yet Fraser thinks it is a mistake to see the family in this way. We do not understand families adequately, she suggests, if we see them only as “havens in a heartless world.” Instead, we need to understand them as institutions that straddle lifeworld and system. They are sites of labor-exchanges (unpaid in the case of household work that women typically perform) and economic distributions (typically controlled by male heads of households). Consequently, to conceive of emancipatory struggles as struggles against the colonization of the lifeworld, as Habermas does, can serve an ideological function. With regard to the family, we risk supporting and reinstating a domain, not of free and equal communicative action, but of male domination and female subordination. As Fraser puts the point, a critical theory that wishes to avoid this danger must be careful not to “put the male-headed nuclear family and the state-regulated official economy on two opposite sides of the major categorical divide.”

What categorial framework does Fraser think can do better? What sort of theoretical perspective from the horizon of second-wave feminism can provide a better diagnosis of post-World War II capitalist societies? Fraser offers a first stab in her 1989 “Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late-Capitalist Political Culture.” Here she focuses on the question of how “late-capitalist” societies determine which desires are to count, which social needs are the political state’s responsibility to meet. Her answer is a tripartite model, the first aspect of which involves “the socio-cultural ‘means of interpretation and communication’” or, in other words, the particular set of interpretive resources a given society has for raising claims about what people need and for showing the legitimacy of those claims. The model is also meant to allow us to locate the boundaries in the society between political, economic, and domestic dimensions of life. Finally, the model presents needs as sites of struggle over these boundaries: that is, the economic and domestic relations of power at any given time will work to keep needs from crossing economic and/or domestic boundaries, and thereby become political issues. Thus, the insistence that domestic battery is a private issue between husband and wife and day-care an economic issue between worker and employer. Even when activists have succeeded in resetting the boundaries between political, economic and domestic dimensions of life — in the form of laws against domestic battery, for example — these boundaries can be un-set, in a sense. We can pathologize domestic batterers and their victims, reducing them to fodder for therapy rather than criminal justice.

To be sure, as a way to understand struggles over needs, it is not entirely clear what exactly Fraser’s model adds. Her Foucauldian caution that expert discourses can depoliticize needs is well taken. Nevertheless, we can surely understand struggles over needs without an “outline of a socialist-feminist critical theory of late-capitalist political culture.” In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Miranda Fricker does fine with simple narrative. Take Fricker’s example of unwanted advances in the workplace. Before feminists and activists took up the issue, the available discursive resources (“the socio-cultural means of interpretation and communication”) did not yet include the language of sexual harassment. Rather, unwanted advances were more often understood as innocent flirtations about which women were meant to have or to cultivate a sense of humor. Countless workshops and consciousness-raising sessions were necessary to develop a more adequate understanding. Fraser’s model sees these workshops as attempts to shift the boundaries between economic and political arenas. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how her model clarifies or how it adds to our understanding of struggles over needs. And it remains unclear how it contributes to a critical theory of “late-capitalist political culture.”

If these two articles illustrate Fraser’s role in what she sees as the first act of second-wave feminism, what about her contributions to the second? Two articles from this part of Fortunes of Feminism are illustrative, the first of her critical interventions and the second of her programmatic views. Fraser sees the “cultural” turn she thinks feminism took in the 1990s as a mistake. Feminists too narrowly focused on women’s difference from men and too eagerly turned to poststructuralist theories. They did so, Fraser thinks, at the expense of the institutional analyses and attention to political economy that she says characterized second-wave feminism’s first act. In “Against Symbolicism: The Uses and Abuses of Lacanianism for Feminist Politics,” she recalls her “severe puzzlement” and “growing incomprehension as a large and influential body of feminist scholars created an interpretation of Jacques Lacan’s theory of the symbolic order, which they sought to use for feminist purposes.” What disturbed Fraser was not so much Lacan’s work itself, but rather the version of his work that she thinks feminists took up: hence, her reference to Lacanianism rather than Lacan in her title. The merit of Lacanianism is that it shows gender to be a “discursive construction;” sexual identity, the recognition that one is a man or a woman, is no longer based on biology, but on the process of identification, language, and socialization, in which the child learns society’s rules and becomes a subject. In taking on the identity the society prescribes, the child enters the symbolic order, governed by the incest taboo or what Lacan calls “the law of the Father.” Subjugation to that law and becoming a subject are thus one and the same. Given the law’s phallocentric tilt, women are pretty much condemned.

This analysis is too culturally and historically unspecific for Fraser. What we need from discourse theory are insights into how our social identities are formed and altered over time, how social groups form and disintegrate over time, how dominant groups retain their cultural dominance, and what our prospects are for emancipatory change. Foucault, Bourdieu, Bakhtin, Gramsci, and Habermas can help us toward these insights, she insists; Lacan, Kristeva, Saussure, and Derrida cannot. The ahistorical and acultural bent of Lacanianism has consequences: it reduces gender inequality to a matter of language and culture, neglects socio-economic issues, and leaves women without any prospects for change.

Not that Fraser wants to ignore questions of gender identity completely. Instead, in “Feminist Politics in the Age of Recognition: A Two-Dimensional Approach to Gender Justice,” she argues for a two-dimensional conception of gender. Gender organizes a status hierarchy that permeates popular culture and everyday interactions and does so according to what Fraser calls “androcentric value patterns.” These patterns elicit misrecognition and are the source of oppositional struggles for recognition, played out on the terrain of culture. But gender also structures the division between paid productive and unpaid domestic work, and, within paid productive work, it also largely dictates the division between higher-paid manufacturing and professional occupations and lower-paid “pink collar” occupations. These divisions elicit distributive inequalities, played out on the economic terrain. The causes of misrecognition cannot be derived from the structure of maldistribution, nor vice versa. An adequate feminist theory, she writes, must allow for two independent analytic perspectives in order to deal with issues of redistribution and recognition.

How? Here Fraser turns to a principle of what she terms participatory parity. A just society, she says, is one in which all its members can participate as peers or on par with all other participants. Participatory parity requires social policies and actions that acknowledge the legitimacy of claims to recognition without increasing economic inequality. And it requires social policies that achieve fairness in the distribution of resources without increasing failures in status recognition. Take, for example, redistributive policies aimed at reducing female poverty. To the extent that such policies stigmatize certain women as unproductive “welfare mothers” and pit them against hard-working taxpayers, they feed into status problems of misrecognition. Conversely, policies restricting certain kinds of sex work may enhance the status of women at the expense of the economic welfare of sex workers themselves. The upshot, according to Fraser, is the need for a double slogan: no redistribution without recognition and no recognition without redistribution. Support for poor women must be accomplished on a neutral basis, such as unemployment insurance, in order to avoid status problems. Efforts to curtail demeaning views of women must be accomplished through educational means that do not threaten livelihoods.

These results are certainly desirable. But surely the paradigms of redistribution and recognition mirror Habermas’s distinction between system and lifeworld, the very distinction Fraser criticized in 1985. Moreover, if redistribution and recognition provide different analytic perspectives on society, why these perspectives and why only two? Honneth asks a similar question in his “The Point of Recognition: A Rejoinder to the Rejoinder,” which is part of his exchange with Fraser in Redistribution or Recognition: A Political Philosophical Exchange (2003). Why not consider political and legal perspectives as well? Does the possibility of participation as a peer not also include a political condition determining who can make claims about distribution or recognition on whom and in accordance with what procedures?

Fraser concedes this point in her most recent work, which she presents in Fortunes of Feminism as a contribution to second-wave feminism’s third act. “Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World,” first published in 2005, argues that such questions become especially pertinent in the heyday of globalization. “Predator states and transnational private powers” signal the demise of what Fraser refers to as the “Keynesian-Westphalian frame,” or territorial-state system. We can no longer simply assume we know the context within which issues of recognition and redistribution are to be settled, and we therefore need to attend to the political dimension of representation and misrepresentation; in particular, we need to attend to the possibility of “misframing” where those setting political boundaries can disenfranchise others who are thereby barred from raising legitimate claims.

Fraser thus enlarges her standard of participatory parity. She now says that we need not only a standard from which we can adjudicate claims to economic fairness and status recognition, but, in addition, a standard from which we can adjudicate claims about who can raise such claims and to whom. The appropriate slogan now is “no redistribution or recognition without representation.” Presumably, we can therefore revise Fraser’s earlier analysis of welfare mothers and sex workers. What both need is the assurance of political representation and hence enhanced democratic structures and institutions. Once we extend our gaze beyond the United States to women of the global South, sex workers in the tourist trade and so on, it becomes clear that enhancing democratic structures must proceed in both national and international arenas.

Fortunes of Feminism is not without its problems. Despite Fraser’s rationale for republishing these essays, some readers will still find it odd that the book includes not just previously published essays, but previously published essays she has already republished in her own previous books. Others may question her focus on conceptual models, on finding the overarching analytic perspectives for illuminating the whole of modern capitalist societies. Might this aim be quixotic? Or the resulting models less illuminating than she thinks? In the introduction to Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange, Fraser and Honneth write that despite the differences their cowritten book illuminates, they share “above all, the ambition to connect the usually discrete levels of moral philosophy, social theory, and political analysis in a critical theory of capitalist society.” They continue:

In this respect we part company from many of our friends and colleagues who also identify with the tradition of Critical Theory. Whereas most of them now tend to assume a disciplinary division of labor, assigning moral theory to the philosophers, social theory to the sociologists, and political analysis to the political scientists […] both of us aspire to theorize capitalist society as a “totality.”

Yet though Fraser thus takes up the mantel of “grand theory,” it is not clear that her theoretical models as are illuminating as her utopian vision. Habermas’s analytic framework of system and lifeworld tells us where to look for tensions in modern capitalist societies, and it directs us to work to protect and enhance important areas of communal life against the incursions of money and power. It is not clear that Fraser’s theoretical models have the same effect. Do we need them to see that we ought to recognize people different from ourselves, that we ought to work to minimize unconscionable disparities in wealth, and that we ought to try to improve democratic institutions and procedures within states and international organizations? Undoubtedly not. But it is, nonetheless, a pleasure to watch, in Fortunes of Feminism, an important contemporary critical theorist at work, attempting to clarify, as time goes by, “the struggles and wishes of the age.”


Georgia Warnke is Professor of political science, University of California, Riverside

LARB Contributor

Georgia Warnke is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center of Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of numerous articles and five books: Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (1987); Justice and Interpretation (1992);Legitimate Differences (1999); After Identity (2007) and Debating Sex and Gender (2010).


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