A New Critical Theory of Crisis? Nancy Fraser discusses crisis and ‘fictitious commodification’


Earlier this year, Nancy Fraser gave a lecture at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies at the University of Helsinki in Finland on the question: ‘Can societies be commodities all the way down?’.

Fraser uses insights taken from her readings of the anthropologist and economist Karl Polanyi in his 1944 book ‘The Great Transformation’ to argue that there are three strands of modern crisis: the ecological, the financial and the strand pertaining to social reproduction. Fraser situates the origins of these three strands of crisis in what Polanyi calls ‘fictitious commodification’, or the commodification of what he takes to be uncommodifiable resources: Land, Money and Labour. In trying to commodify these, society enters into crisis as it, in Fraser’s phrase, ‘bites its own tail off’. Fraser looks at how Polanyi’s thoughts on these matters can be related to ecological theory, feminism, and Marxist critiques of financialisation.

Fraser argues that ‘A critical theory for our time must encompass all three of these crisis dimensions … all three have a common source in the deep structure of our society, all three share a common grammar’. She proceeds to show how ideologies which purport to deal with the problem of marketization and commodification, offering either more marketization or promising ‘social protection’, need to be supplemented by an emancipatory trend in thinking which critiques the workings of domination and seeks freedom from that domination. She attempts to show a way out of the impasse of modern attempts to analyse crisis: either subscribing to nostalgic anti-commodification or free market joy in such commodification. Thus, she wishes to go past both free market ideology and ideologies of ‘social protection’. This is what she claims to be her emancipatory project.