Resisting Cannibal Capitalism

RED PEPPER, Nancy Fraser, May 6, 2023 

If we are serious about saving democracy, care and the planet we need to address the root of the crisis, which is capital’s insatiable need to devour them.

It is increasingly common to hear of crises – economic, environmental and/or racial – in which the vast majority of the global population are confined to substandard living conditions while a global elite accrues wealth at a horrifying pace. There is a widespread sense that something has to give, that the world cannot continue on its current path. Of course, this is often the cry emanating from movements on the streets and detailed in the pages of Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change (IPCC) reports but these often fall on the deaf ears of those in power. So what exactly has to change and how do we untangle this big, hot mess?

To understand where we are and to figure out a strategy for radical change, we need to recognise that capitalism as an economic system depends on several non-capitalist systems of social and natural reproduction. Most fundamentally, and perhaps most timely, is nature and the planet. Then the family, education and health, the polity and political order and the possibility of plunder from populations outside the system. The term ‘polycrisis’ that is now bandied about in the seminar rooms of Davos implies that each of these crises, afflicting a variety of these systems, are separate from another – as if it were just bad luck that they were occurring at the same time. We must understand that this is a fallacy and capitalism is the crisis. As Farwa Sial recently wrote for the Developing Economics blog, ‘Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations – long predicted by a diverse group of thinkers.’

Widening our lens

There is an overwhelming tendency to identify the core injustice of capitalist society with the exploitation of waged workers at the point of commodity production. The recent wave of strike action in the UK is a timely reminder of this and, of course, the history of capitalism cannot be told without the history of the waged worker. But capitalism’s exploitative reach extends far beyond the worker and ‘the economy’ and to truly envision a world beyond capitalism, we must first understand those wider spheres upon which it feeds.

First, and as a multitude of feminist economists have noted over decades, is care work. ‘Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?’ as the adage goes. Capitalism relies on the unpaid labour of predominantly women to nurture, sustain, replenish and create the workers of tomorrow. Modern forms of ‘lean-in’ feminism have encouraged women to buy into the capitalist illusion, casting off their motherly chains and passing them down the social hierarchy. But this does nothing about the devaluing of care work and merely relocates exploitation further down the income distribution.

A second precondition for a capitalist economy is ecology. Capital relies on nature in a very literal sense for the raw materials necessary for production and environmental conditions conducive to habitable life. Yet decades of ‘externalising’ so-called ecological assets has brought the climate to the brink of breakdown with huge inequalities along the lines of class and race in terms of who is most vulnerable.

None of this accumulation can proceed without legal systems to guarantee private property and contractual exchange, nor repressive forces to manage dissent and enforce the hierarchies that enable corporations to expropriate populations at home and abroad.

State power

This brings us to the next precondition: state power (or its absence). Think of the legal frameworks that allow multinational corporations to sequester billions in offshore accounts. These intricate legal frameworks are not acts of nature but concoctions of the state.

Capital needs the power of the state but its actions also undermine state capacity. The result is a set of tensions between the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ and a deep-seated tendency towards political crisis. On one hand these are crises of governance, in which the system destroys its own capacity to manage the problems it generates. On the other, they are crises of hegemony, in which people become disillusioned with flagrant inequality and a political system that enables it.