Book review of Nancy Fraser's Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet – and What We Can Do About It (2022)
by Katherine McNally
Published onJun 21, 2023
Book Review: Cannibal Capitalism
Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet – and What We Can Do About It, by Nancy Fraser (2022). London: Verso.
The fires this year came early and strange—from the northeast this time and startlingly close to the last frost of the spring. Smoke, acrid and eye-watering, drifted south from Nova Scotia and Quebec, turning the skies of New York City and Washington, D.C. an apocalyptic orange. With each year that passes, wealthy inhabitants of some of the most powerful cities on earth are finding it difficult to breathe. Now that even rarefied publics smell the smoke, perhaps the fire won’t be treated as theoretical (or simply regrettable) anymore.
Living and dying through an era of generalized crisis that scholars have called the anthropocene, plantationocene, or capitalocene can feel like a draining of resolve, of hope, of imagination. Parts of the planet are burning; the rest of it, in general, is heating up. And amid the unthinkable loss of species, lifeways, livelihoods, it is also becoming ever more difficult to buy groceries, pay for childcare, find housing, or save for retirement. What can resistance to impossibly large, entangled structures even look like when, for most people, daily life is a hustle? In Cannibal Capitalism, social theorist Nancy Fraser argues that the feeling of “being sapped” on personal and planetary levels is not a coincidence but rather a baked-in consequence of twenty-first century global capitalist society.
For Marx, capitalism’s profit or “surplus value” doesn’t originate with the market exchange of commodities, but rather with the exploitation of workers at the point of production. Fraser agrees, but contends that his critique doesn’t go far enough to illuminate the “hidden abodes” of capitalist profit. She accompanies Indigenous theorists, Black Marxists, and other critical readers of Marx in pointing out that the raw materials of capital, obtained through a process Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” was not a one-time seizure of land and property, as Marx implies, but the brutal and continuous theft that underpins capitalist growth. From transatlantic slavery and stolen Indigenous land to sweatshops, prison labor, and legal and economic structures that disproportionately harm people of color, Fraser argues that predatory systems of expropriation, not just exploitation, enable the functioning of capitalist society by violently sapping energy. She also suggests that while these “two exes” (exploitation and expropriation) have historically been separate, largely along color lines, they are increasingly coming together. Intertwined with the racialized spectrum of inequality is the fact that working-class wages have dropped lower than what is required for economic survival, let alone property ownership, vacation time, or a child’s university education. The gaps are filled by parasitic loans from banks and other lenders, which further enrich financialized capitalism. Fewer and fewer of those in the working class, Fraser submits, are “merely” exploited.
Call it “free riding,” parasitism, or outright theft, capitalism depends upon—and grows surplus value from—that which it gets for free (or very little) and simultaneously disavows as “non-economic.” From bodily energy and care work to “non-human nature” and governance structures, Fraser argues that capitalist market economies are hardwired to expropriate the only means that we have for renewing and regenerating our worlds, drilling into them for ever-more shareholder profit. More than that, capitalist structures mine these veins of life as if they were infinitely available and infinitely able to regenerate themselves. Alas, neither is true. By sucking dry our vital systems of interdependence for more and more value, Fraser contends that capitalist society not only dooms its own future but also all other possible futures—capitalist and otherwise.
If you read just one chapter of Cannibal Capitalism, let it be the last one. Here, Fraser compellingly recaps her major points before leaving us with something substantial to chew on. If capitalism is programmed to prey upon all life and wellbeing on earth to increase its profits, then what could a structure designed to support societies look like instead? “What,” Fraser asks, “should socialism mean in the twenty-first century?” (141). She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but one rings clear: for twenty-first century socialism to be a truly emancipatory project, capitalist exploitation at points of production must be understood as one part of a generalized crisis of social reproduction that cannot be addressed within separate movements for class, gender, racial, sexual, or environmental justice. Fraser writes, “whereas capitalist societies subordinate the imperatives of social, political, and ecological reproduction to those of commodity production, itself geared toward accumulation, socialists need to turn things right side up—to install the nurturing of people, the safeguarding of nature, and democratic self-rule as society’s highest priorities, which trump efficiency and growth” (152). A twenty-first century socialism must therefore nourish that which capitalism disavows (and devours).
Cannibal Capitalism is a slim volume (157 pages), and it reads like a distillation of arguments that Fraser has been honing for decades, but such brevity can present trade-offs. While Fraser walks us expertly through phases in capitalism’s history, providing insight into its shifting forms and penchant for crisis, necessary voices and perspectives fall out of view. For example, in Fraser’s grand narrativization of global capitalism, she is clearly centering North America, particularly the United States, with brief European forays. These are locations from which capitalist logics forcefully emanate, to be sure; but at times, Fraser herself seems to inadvertently universalize those Euro-American capitalist ideologies. At moments, Fraser’s passive voice phrasing—such as “Objectified and externalized, nature now appeared as Humanity’s antithesis” (96)—seems to suggest that historical changes in capitalist relations have also represented ontological shifts for everyone on the planet. She might have emphasized more explicitly that those logics, buttressed by regimes of wealth and violence, are by no means universally accepted. Just because everyone is trapped (albeit trapped differently) by capitalist relations does not mean that everyone takes them as given. Such generalization often stems from the writerly genre of historians, philosophers, and social theorists—all paragons of the passive voice—which can risk falling into a universalizing trap of its own making. Attention to how each of us tells the story of capitalism’s plunder—and in whose voices—matters when the stakes are precisely the unequal relationships among peoples, animals, lands and waters, as well as our collective ability to remake our relationships with the future.
We planetary inhabitants all urgently require social systems that nourish rather than consume our capacities for renewal, as Fraser so powerfully attests—but enclosing our capacity for change within the binary of capitalism or socialism fails to fully grapple with the ways of thinking that have lead us here in the first place (consider, for example, the fiction of “non-human nature”) or acknowledge the already existing ways of relating to one another that might yet pull us out of this downward spiral. Like the gilded ouroboros on the cover of Cannibal Capitalism, we just might be left eating our tails again. As anthropologists, we know that very little daylight shines between thinking and relating, and that worlds are made through relationships imbued with power. If we see our work as writing to replenish these worlds by shifting dominant modes of thought, then we must write courageously, conscious of ways that grammar on the page (subject, object, passive voice, et cetera) can reflect (and also resist) grammars of domination.
There is no view from nowhere. Structural arguments that name monsters definitively in order to speak above the fray can provide powerful critiques and sketch out crucial points of intervention—but, on their own, they are not yet enacting a different kind of scholarship for a different kind of world. Insight, however partial, into nested crises and the high stakes of planetary renewal must also be found in the situated, messy, uncanny, and non-innocent work of living. I write from the western shore of the Avalon Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland, where the interrelated crises of work, care, nature, and governance that Fraser describes are profoundly felt. Yet they are also tangled and personal, haunted by a particular blend of imperialism and colonialism and charged with strong and situated yearnings for the future. The crises and their effects are simultaneously immediate and ghostly, coming in and out of focus like icebergs in the fog.
This year, long-awaited returns of summer weather and fish are late. The cold mist of spring, called “capelin weather” for the fish that it usually heralds, lingers—but the capelin themselves have yet to arrive. For the last few weeks, the sun has turned bright crimson as it sets. I don’t know whether the color is due to fires to the south and west or a sailor’s delight of sea mist over the Atlantic. I don’t know how to respond when a woman who, like me, pulls over her car to watch the red sun setting, says “Some peaceful, don’t you think?” As we gaze across the bay into the scarlet nightfall, we can see construction on a new oil rig that grows taller every day and a few crab boats fishing, even though the price of this year’s catch barely covers the cost of diesel. Behind us, a fox with something small and furry in her teeth crosses the road in the strange light, supper for her kits who are wary of headlights. Barreling down the road from the rig, bleary-eyed carpenters and iron workers have started the long drive home after 12-hour shifts, hoping to catch some time with families and perhaps read stories to their children before they fall, however briefly, to sleep.
Katherine McNally is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Yale University. She is currently working on her multimedia dissertation on the social origins and effects of ghost nets (lost and abandoned fishing nets) in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
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