Nancy Fraser

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

Verso Books, 2022 

208 Pages


Reviewed by Nishant Upadhyay

In considering capitalism beyond its usual definition as an economic system, Fraser shows that the development of global capitalism has been entangled in exploitative and proximate relationships with labor, care, nature, and politics. The emergence of global capitalism, Fraser shows, is not just a product of its dependency on the exploitation of wage labor and surplus value-driven profits – as a classical Marxian definition would define it – but rooted in deeper structures of extra-economic, social exploitation. The threats that loom over our societies today are products of capitalism’s inherent contradictions and its tendency to destabilize and devour the pillars of its existence i.e., labor, care, nature, and politics.

Fraser defines ‘cannibal capitalism’ as “the process by which capital draws into its orbit natural and social wealth” from the world’s peripheries. Like a celestial object, this tendency is capitalism’s primary feature, which is “a societal order that empowers a profit-driven economy to prey on extra economic support” and “piles up monetized value for investors and owners, while devouring non-economic wealth for everyone.” In thus defining capitalism and accounting for its societal aspects, Fraser critiques its standard definition as a merely economic system. Fraser engages with Marxist theory to highlight the contradictions within capitalism’s expansion as a societal order and to show what a conception of capitalism as a mere economic order cannot achieve. Her work contributes to scholarship that critiques and expands capitalist theory beyond the Marxian framework that considers surplus the sole hidden locus of capitalism’s source of sustenance.

Just as Marxist theory locates capitalist accumulation in the “hidden abode” of exploiting wages through commodity production, Fraser’s discussion reveals the deeper societal, extra-economic aspects of capitalism that it requires to sustain itself. Fraser identifies these “extra-economic” factors of capitalism’s consumption as care, ecology, and politics. Fraser suggests that earlier theoretical efforts to define capitalism failed to recognize gender, race, ecology, and political power as structuring axes of inequality, and therefore, new conceptualizations are needed. Through one chapter to the next, the book explores in detail how capitalism produces crises that destabilize the very axes from which it draws resources necessary for its survival.

In Chapter One, Fraser elaborates on the secrets that lie behind the traditional ‘hidden abode’ of capitalist accumulation that Marx discovered. In defining four ‘orthodox’ economic features of capitalism –private property, the free labor market, the ‘self’-expanding value, and the role of markets in capitalism – Fraser finds that social reproduction, ecology, and the political are key points that reveal what is behind the Marxist critique of the capital. In Chapter Two, Fraser discusses racial-imperial axes central to capitalism’s historical development. In Chapter Three, Fraser discusses how the institutional separation of ‘economic production’ from ‘social reproduction’ functions as inherently gendered, as care and social reproduction are unpaid. While central to the regeneration of classes and labor power, and thus to capitalism, social reproduction is devoid of its monetary value, feeds in racial axes, and is pushed into the realm of the private sphere of ‘family’ with its burden on women. Care and social reproduction, for Fraser, lie as the central strand to understanding all others. Essentially linked to social reproduction is what threatens its very existence: the climate and environmental crisis. In Chapter Four, Fraser discusses the ecological contradiction inherent in capitalism, especially in its relationship with ‘nature.’ Capitalism treats ‘nature’ as an endless, self-replenishing source of material and waste-absorption, while disavowing any ecological costs it generates. As with care and social reproduction, capitalism’s disavowal of the costs of ecological exploitation leads to the uncontrolled destruction of ‘peripheries’ towards the development of the ‘core,’ along with the destruction of the planetary ecosystem in which everything thrives.

The crises and contradictions of care and ecology are distinct from the political factors necessary for capitalism’s sustenance. In Chapter Five, Fraser discusses the present crisis of democracy as a crisis of financial capitalism. The crises of populist resurgence globally constitute an ‘inter-realm’ contradiction borne out of capitalist accumulation alongside the maintenance of public power and the devouring of social wealth and public welfare. Through its tendency to over-accumulate, capitalism inherently destabilizes legitimate, efficacious public power and threatens democratic systems. In the face of such comprehensive crises, Fraser highlights the need for an equally comprehensive response, that is, redefining socialism as a comprehensive idea to “de-institutionalize multiple crisis tendencies” inherent in capitalism. As Fraser contends in Chapter Six, this includes re-domaining the differences beyond just the economic and political and addressing societal aspects that capitalism has distorted, i.e., care/social-reproduction, ecology/nature, and political/democratic. Fraser finds this contradiction and crisis epitomized in the COVID-19 outbreak, defining COVID-19 in league with other epidemics as a product of “a societal order that puts nature at the mercy of capital.” While this pandemic is neither the first nor the last, it showed the impact of weak and under-funded public healthcare systems and other impacts of globalization in the starkest details possible.

Fraser puts forth two responses to the crises borne out of capitalism that threaten all aspects and forms of life, which also lead us to a critique of this work. First, Fraser suggests a need to construct trans-environmental and anti-capitalist ecopolitics to avoid irreversible catastrophes emerging from capitalism’s ever-exploiting nature. Trans-environmentalism and anti-capitalism must become the central focus of uniting various movements to produce a comprehensive resistance to capitalism. However, there is an equal need to assess, highlight, and resolve the internal contradictions that may emerge from forming such unified resistance – a daunting task. Second, Fraser suggests redefining socialism. This too is a daunting task, given that it needs theory and praxis to be aligned and a global unity of thought. 

Notwithstanding these critiques, this book is an excellent resource for academics, activists, policy-makers, and all those interested in understanding the crises and dynamics of our times. Its comprehensive critique of capitalism with its depth of analysis makes it a necessary intervention in understanding and theorizing the twenty-first century.