Vico lecturer Nancy Fraser explores the global economy in a different light

“How did you get Nancy Fraser?” asked one eager audience member entering the Robert R. McEwen Auditorium on Nov. 19. She wasn’t referring to a rock star, unless you include critical theorists in that category. She was, in fact, referring to the Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at the New School for Social Research in New York City, who was invited to York University’s Keele campus to deliver the fourth annual Giambattista Vico Lecture.

Left: Nancy Fraser

Fraser is a noted thinker and writer on the subject of social and political justice. The evening’s MC, Associate Dean External Relations Haideh Moghissi of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, said, “I can’t think of a timelier lecture than what Nancy Fraser is going to provide us with tonight.”

Fraser’s lecture did not disappoint those gathered as she advocated for a reconceptualization of academic analyses of capitalist economies and how society – or, more specifically, her intellectual contemporaries – should engage in critical discussions of this subject.

“The current crisis of neo-liberal capitalism is altering the landscape of critical theorizing. During the last two decades, most theorists have kept their distance from the large-scale social theorizing associated with Marxism,” said Fraser. “Accepting the necessity of academic specialization, they settled on one or another branch of disciplinary inquiry, conceived as a free-standing enterprise.”

Their work, she continued, has proceeded in relative disconnection from fundamental issues of social theory and the criticisms of capitalist society of earlier generations have all but been abandoned from the agenda of critical theory. Fraser encouraged an interdisciplinary re-engagement and reassessment of the relationship among these issues.

“With the global financial system teetering, worldwide production and employment in freefall and the looming prospect of a prolonged recession, if no longer a global depression, capitalist crisis supplies the inescapable backdrop for every serious attempt at critical theorizing,” she said. “Large-scale social theorizing aimed at clarifying the nature and roots of crisis, as well as the prospects of an emancipatory resolution, promises to regain its central place in critical theory.” This contention would continue to underscore the scope of her lecture.

As a launching-off point for her talk, Fraser referred to the classic 1944 book by Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, which she characterized as an account of capitalist crisis, an intricate, historical process beginning with the laws of enclosure and the Industrial Revolution in Britain that, over the course of a century, transformed the entire world.

“Proponents of the so-called self-regulating market sought to build a world in which society, morals and ethics were subordinated to, indeed modelled on, markets,” said Fraser. However, it was so destructive to human society that it sparked a countermovement to ensure social protections, said Fraser, which created what Polanyi called a double movement that led to fascism and world war. Fraser claimed that, for Polanyi, capitalist crisis was less about economic breakdown and more about social disruption and the despoiling of nature. The Great Transformation constituted a brief for a new, democratic, regulatory regime that would enervate the markets without completely debilitating them, said Fraser.

Above: From left, Leah Vosko, Nancy Fraser, York political science Professor Nicola Short, Haideh Moghissi, Martin Singer and Bettina Bradbury, chair and professor, School of Women’s Studies, LA&PS

“On its face, today’s crisis is plausibly viewed as a great transformation redux,” she remarked. Fraser criticized Polanyi’s argument as deeply flawed because it focused too much on the faults within markets while overlooking problems in the surrounding society in which it is situated. She stated, “Occulting non-market-based forms of injustice, it also tends to whitewash forms of social protection that are at the same time vehicles of domination,” she said, claiming that Polanyi’s conception of the struggle between market and societal forces was too polarized.

She recommended a revision of Polanyi’s reasoning. “The goal, I suggest, should be a new quasi-Polanyian conception of capitalist crisis that not only avoids reductive communism, but also avoids romanticizing society,” said Fraser.

She proposed the introduction of another dimension to Polanyi’s argument, “a third axis of social struggle that crosscuts his central conflict between marketization and social protections.” She called it “emancipation". 

“It aims to overcome forms of subjection rooted in society.” Fraser argued for the importance of thinking beyond the “discredited economistic approaches which focus on the system-logic of the capitalist economy” and to incorporate the insights of feminism, post-colonialism, multiculturalism, and culture in general.

Appropriately, in introducing Fraser, York political science Professor Leah Vosko, Canada Research Chair in Feminist Political Economy, said: “Contra those scholars who support one paradigm over the other in this debate, Nancy Fraser supports a theory of justice that integrates the best insights of each.”

Vosko also spoke of Fraser’s “breathtaking intellectual agility in shifting between the most abstract social and political theory and empirically based, social science research; the dialogical character of that research – specifically, her ability to draw scholars with distinct perspectives into conversation with one another; and her development and use of typologies as heuristic devices for understanding social relations such as gender relations.”

LA&PS Dean Martin Singer spoke of the lecture in the context of York University. “The Giambattista Vico Lecture Series brings groundbreaking research on highly relevant topics to York, Canada’s engaged university,” said Singer. After estimating that approximately half of the audience members appeared to be graduate students, Singer expressed his pleasure at their demonstration of enthusiasm and engagement.

Right: Martin Singer

“It also reflects the continuing interest of our alumni in the University,” said Singer, who thanked Elvio DelZotto (LLB ’60) and Susan Zorzi – her daughter Rochelle was in attendance that evening – who helped to establish the endowed lecture series in memory of Fred Zorzi, late partner of DelZotto, Zorzi LLP. The annual Giambattista Vico lecture honours and highlights the historic and cultural contributions to Canada made by Italian-Canadians.

A podcast of the fourth annual Giambattista Vico Lecture is available for listening online.