Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care and the Planet – And What We Can Do About It

by Nancy Fraser, London and New York: Verso, 2022

Reviewed by Deborah Eade

This book covers far more than is suggested by the sub-title, which is no surprise given that Nancy Fraser has written widely on the philosophical conceptions of justice and injustice; and is a long-standing critic of liberal feminism, and of how identity politics displace a structural critique of capitalism. So, this short book may be a kind of distillation of her life’s work.

Indeed, all six chapters in Cannibal Capitalism (apart from the Epilogue on COVID as ‘a cannibal capitalist orgy’) were originally delivered as university lectures and subsequently published in scholarly journals. In other words, they were conceived for high-level audiences. This helps explain the many erudite references – from Rosa Luxemburg, Marx, Engels, and Polanyi, to William Morris, and exponents of Black Marxism such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Stuart Hall, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, or Barbara Fields. I am not sure how many of these scholars and activists are familiar in any detail to readers of Gender & Development; certainly not to me! These origins might also explain, to my ears, the occasional clash between Fraser’s profoundly serious intent and compassionate vision, set out in demanding arguments, and the popular tone as if to leaven the text: ‘Capitalism is back!’, ‘A double whammy’, ‘Are we toast?’ But these are trivial quibbles that doubtless say more about me than they do about the book.

Cannibal Capitalism comprises six chapters. ‘Omnivore’ sets the analytical scene by arguing that understanding capitalism as an economic system based on the extraction and accumulation of profit is itself part of its ideological underpinning, which externalises (that is, erases) the vast nexus of resources on which it both depends, and yet destroys. Fraser argues that

the political, ecological, and social-reproductive strands of crisis are inseparable from racialized expropriation in both periphery and core … In short, economic, ecological, social, and political crises are inextricably entangled with imperialism and oppression – and with the escalating antagonisms associated with them. (p. 16)

At the same time, ‘capitalist production is not self-sustaining, but free rides on social reproduction, nature, political power, and expropriation; yet its orientation to endless accumulation threatens to destabilize these very conditions of its possibility’ (p. 23). Getting beyond the ‘structural divisions that have historically constituted capitalist societies’ to develop a vision of emancipation is what Fraser sets out to articulate.

The second chapter, ‘Glutton for Punishment’, focuses on the structural racism that is inherent in capitalism. From the Spanish Conquest of Latin America from the 15th century, the genocide and enslavement of its indigenous peoples, and the expropriation and extraction of its natural resources (the silver extracted from mines in Potosí in present-day Bolivia could have paved an 8,000 km bridge to Madrid), and similar processes taking place across the world, culminating in the abhorrent enslavement of some 12.5 million Africans to work in plantations across the Caribbean (and north-east Brazil), but predominantly the US South. The scars of every colonised country, and enslaved peoples – and, in a different way, of the former colonial powers – still shape contemporary economies, politics, societies, and lives. Most of the detail is specific to the US, but the essential observations are universal:

People of color remain racialized and far more likely than others to be poor, unemployed, homeless, hungry, and sick … to be used as cannon fodder or sex slaves and turned into refugees or ‘collateral damage’ in endless wars; to be dispossessed and forced to flee violence, poverty, and climate change-induced disasters, only to be confined in cages at borders or left to drown at sea. (p. 49)

Chapter 3, ‘Care Guzzler: Why Social Reproduction is a Major Site of Capitalist Crisis’, is perhaps of most immediate interest to readers of this journal. That capitalism depends on women’s unremunerated (or, if outside the home, underpaid and undervalued) work in the care economy, also called ‘social reproduction’ or ‘affective labour’, is hardly a new insight. Nor is the gendered division of every labour market, and the gender pay gap, which consign most women to lower-status and often part-time work and, hence, to economic dependence on men. What is novel is that Fraser shows how the ‘care crunch’ (p. 54) is intrinsically linked to the erosion of ‘the social capacities, both domestic and public, that are needed to sustain accumulation over the long term’ (pp. 57–8), driven in turn by the centrality of national and personal debt. Workers of both sexes double up as consumers; the household ‘a private space for the domestic consumption of mass-produced objects of daily use’ (p. 65). What follows is the ‘desperate scramble to transfer carework to others’, frequently migrant workers (p. 70); indeed, in the post-war period, the UK government invited British subjects from Commonwealth countries to work in public transport and in the new National Health Service (NHS), with little care for the widespread racism they would encounter then, and still do now. Of course, migrant care work is also commonplace across the global South, especially in countries characterised by vast inequality, from Brazil to Guatemala, from India to South Africa. Fraser calls for ‘reinventing the production/reproduction distinction and reimagining the gender order. It remains to be seen whether the result will be compatible with capitalism at all’ (p. 73).

Chapter 4, ‘Nature in the Maw’, focuses on the devastation of eco-systems caused by unfettered capitalism, past and present. Climate breakdown and the loss of animal and plant species are a manifestation of ‘a nature that “bites back”’ (p. 90) in the face of its ‘catastrophic hijacking’ and commodification by capitalist society. Fraser is scathing about carbon-offsets as a ‘new, green-capitalist imaginary’. ‘The idea that a coal-belching factory here can be “offset” by a tree plantation there assumes a nature composed of fungible, commensurable units whose place-specificity, qualitative traits, and experienced meanings can be disregarded’ (p. 104). She is equally unforgiving about assuming that green technical innovations will allow for the continuation of ‘business as usual’. The answer does not lie in trading in a gas-guzzling private vehicle for an e-vehicle, nor in treating aspects of environmental issues in isolation, nor indeed in ‘degrowth’ – all of which look for workarounds to avoid confronting capitalist power. Rather, Fraser calls for a ‘trans-environmental, anti-capitalist eco-politics’, and a ‘deep rethink of our relation to nature and ways of living’ (pp. 110–11), to develop ‘eco-socialism’.

‘Butchering Democracy’ comes next. Obviously, capitalism is fundamentally – not residually – dependent on public powers: from legal frameworks to protect property and wealth, to health and education systems, telecommunications, utilities, roads and transport systems, international trade regimes, and much besides. Yet, there is a tension between public policy and capital accumulation – as witnessed today by consumers having to choose between ‘eating and heating’ in the face of soaring inflation; while the oil companies have hauled in unprecedented profits, which they are busy distributing among shareholders and bonuses for already spectacularly overpaid CEOs. Governments are reluctant to rein them in, for fear that they will pack up and go to a more lenient jurisdiction. In reality, though, the main decisions are made not by individual states, but by the international financial institutions and central or regional banks, which make ‘many of the most consequential rules that govern the central relations of capitalist society’, in particular ‘financialized capitalism’. ‘It is largely through debt that capital now cannibalizes labor, disciplines states, transfers value from periphery to core, and sucks wealth from society and nature’ (p. 128). To date, resistance is piecemeal, and moreover has lent itself to co-option: social movements from feminism to LGBTQ+ rights have been ‘casting a veneer of emancipatory charisma over the predatory political economy of neoliberalism’ (p. 136).

The final chapter asks what socialism should look like in the 21st century. Having argued throughout that ‘capitalism is not an economy, but a type of society – one on which an arena of economized activities and relations is marked out and set apart from other, non-economized zones, on which the former depend, but which they disavow’ (p. 145) – Fraser is not about to suggest a straight swap with socialism. The task of inventing an entirely new social order is colossal, and will require courage and creativity, and new collaborative mindsets, ‘to overcome capitalism’s tendency to institute zero-sum games, which take away from nature, public power, and social reproduction what they give to production’ (p. 152). It needs to be ‘appropriately inclusive’ and observe ‘parity of participation’; eschew ‘free riding and so-called primitive accumulation … and ensure the sustainability of all those conditions of production that capitalism has so callously trashed’ (p. 153). Fraser envisages any ‘social surplus’ at the top as the collective wealth of society, not of markets; while at the other end of the spectrum the basic human rights of all (to food, clean water, shelter, clothing, leisure, etc.) are public goods, with no role for markets there either (p. 156).

The intriguing cover depicts the ‘self-cannibalizing serpent that eats its own tail’, which captures the author’s essential argument: that capitalism devours everything on which its existence depends – social, economic, political, natural – as well human life and ways of life, and thus everything from which we draw meaning and cultural values. While Nancy Fraser acknowledges that she has presented essential principles rather than a detailed manifesto, she persuasively shows how these principles would expand the conception of socialism and demonstrate its relevance to a host of contemporary concerns, encompassing all the issues raised in the book: imperialism, structural racism, social reproduction, global heating and climate breakdown, and de-democratization. The future of the planet, of human society, and of living well – buen vivir – demands no less.

© 2022 Deborah Eade