How Capitalism Worms Its Way Into Every Aspect of Our Lives

Nancy Fraser

Marxists have a powerful critique of exploitation in the capitalist workplace, but our analysis can’t stop there. A comprehensive analysis of capitalism, Nancy Fraser argues, must also account for the social relations that make the official economy possible.

A young woman on all fours with a tin of cleaning powder, circa 1955. (James W. Welgos / Archive Photos via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Since Karl Marx’s original interventions, subsequent generations of Marxists have spilled a great deal of ink fleshing out his powerful social critique. Feminists in particular have drawn our attention to the work performed in homes, schools, and hospitals to sustain people — much of which is not recognized as work at all. But without the labor that goes into raising, educating, feeding, and healing people, which Marxist feminists have termed “social reproduction,” workers can’t survive, and neither can capitalism itself. This theory collapses the traditional distinction between the workplace and the home. It also demands a fuller account of capitalism’s pervasiveness, beyond what we conceive of as the formal economy.

Marxist critical theorist Nancy Fraser is well known for her feminist and Marxist writing on social reproduction. Fraser’s book Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, a dialogue with philosopher and critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi, extends Fraser’s original analysis of social reproduction to capitalism’s other critical underpinnings. Fraser argues that a total analysis of capitalism requires taking Marxism beyond a narrowly economistic view. Hers is an argument against sharp divisions — not just between the workplace and the home but between the economic and political and environmental and between liberal free labor regimes in wealthy countries and raw expropriation on the neocolonial periphery.

In 2018, Nancy Fraser sat down with Daniel Denvir, host of the Jacobin podcast The Dig, to discuss her and Jaeggi’s book, capitalism’s crisis of social reproduction, and the socialist responsibility to provide an alternative.

Daniel Denvir

Your Marxism is a refreshingly comprehensive one. You argue that the exploitation of labor in the realm of production, which is what’s most familiar to many Marxists, critically depends upon three key things that are shunted off into the background: First, social reproduction, which most notably but by no means exclusively includes home lives where humans eat, sleep, and socialize, and where children are reared. Second, politics, which includes everything from the market to creating and defending the activities of government to maintenance and expansion of the carceral state. And third, nonhuman nature, which is both a critical source of raw materials for capitalists and a dumpster for their waste.

Some orthodox variants of Marxism don’t pay much attention to these things. That’s ironic, because capitalism mystifies and denies the fact that it depends upon these spheres. Explain this big picture of capitalism you’re arguing for — something that is, in your analysis, far more than a merely economic system.

Nancy Fraser

You’re right that there is a tendency to think of capitalism as an economic system. Then, we think that if we’re engaged on the Left in trying to criticize capitalism, we’re criticizing how production is organized, how wealth is distributed, how class power in the workplace is wielded, and so on. Now, all of those things are extremely important, but they’re not the whole story, because the official economy within a capitalist society depends on a background of social relations, social practices, and institutions that are regarded as noneconomic.

In fact, I would say that one thing that is really definitive of capitalist societies, which distinguishes those societies from others, is precisely the centrality of this distinction between what is truly economic and what is noneconomic. That’s not a distinction that’s somehow given by nature. It is a socially constructed distinction and one that is institutionalized with real material and political force in capitalist societies.

So, all the work of birthing and raising children, of schooling them, of feeding them, of cleaning them, of socializing them, and all the work of caring for other family members, whether we’re talking about healthy and able working adults or aging or invalid parents and others — all of that is considered noneconomic and outside of the capitalist economy — unless we get to a point, which we have to some degree, where this work is commodified and becomes waged work. But it’s typically shoved into the background.

When we think we’re criticizing capitalism, we’re often ignoring all that. We’re also ignoring all of these questions about how public power — the power of states, of global financial and political institutions, of police — is organized and is also a necessary precondition for the functioning of a capitalist economy in the narrow sense. And the third thing you mentioned, nonhuman nature, is seen from the capitalist economic point of view as a repository of raw material stuff that we can just funnel into production, use up, exhaust, and not worry about replenishing as if it’s an infinitely available gift. As you say, it’s also to be used as a place to dump waste, of which we generate an enormous amount.

So, if you take an expanded view of capitalism, you realize that we can’t understand how the narrow economy functions if we don’t look at the ways in which it relies on inputs from the system of care or social reproduction, from the system of nature, and from the various political systems. The economy doesn’t work without those things. And my proposal is that instead of interpreting capitalism as an economic system, we should see it as the name for something much bigger.

One advantage of taking this expanded view of capitalism is that you get to see how entrenched relations of domination — other than the ones that Marxists have traditionally focused on, namely class understood in an economistic way — are also inseparable from and structurally grounded in capitalist societies. That includes relations of gender dominance and subordination, which has everything to do with the division between economic production and social reproduction. Race and imperial domination fit into this picture in a way that is equally structural. And obviously, ecological depredation and destruction is built in.

So, we’ve got a broader array of axes of domination, flash points of trouble, and nodes of crisis. There’s much more going on in capitalist society than the traditional economistic picture suggests.

Daniel Denvir

Social reproduction has been the focus of your work for a lot of your career. I want you to explain a little bit more about what that is and how it differs from forms of patriarchy that have existed outside of capitalism.

Concretely, I’d also like you to explain what crises of social reproduction look like in the United States today. One core contradiction or crisis tendency in capitalism is that the drive to accumulate more capital means that all of these prerequisites that capitalism depends upon but denies are always threatened with commodification and destruction. So, I’d like you to lay out these current crises in social reproduction and why it is that capitalism is driven to undermine the conditions of its own existence.

Nancy Fraser

At one level, social reproduction just means all of the activities and energies and social relations that go into producing, socializing, and reproducing human beings and the bonds that connect people to one another in social life. Social reproduction in this very general sense exists in every society, whether precapitalist or capitalist or socialist.

But social reproduction is organized in a specific way in capitalist societies, which separates it from what we call economic production. We have a huge division between the household and the workplace, between the family and the factory. This division correlates historically with gender, with the distinction between the sphere of women and the sphere of men.

It’s this split between production and reproduction in capitalism that is distinctive. In previous societies, women’s work was often distinguished from men’s work, meaning they didn’t do exactly the same things, but they did it more or less in the same space of the extended household or the village or community. There was no sense that women’s work was somehow occluded, made invisible, seen as not contributing. But with the emergence of capitalism, and especially these various Victorian ideologies and middle-class ideals of female domesticity, we developed the idea that that women weren’t really even working at all. They were just adorning or diffusing fine moral sentiments throughout society. This is all a huge mystification.

Some Marxist feminists have thought of social reproductive labor exclusively as housework. I think that’s too narrow. It’s not just about cleaning and cooking and washing within the confines of a private family home. Social reproduction should also be thought of as including schools and other institutions that create social bonds.

Daniel Denvir

Playgrounds, community centers, block parties.

Nancy Fraser

Playgrounds, community centers, hospitals, and medical clinics are also sites of social reproduction. It’s a vast expanse of social activity. But for the most part, and this is another distinctive feature of capitalism, unless it’s brought inside the economy and treated as a way to make a profit, it’s not counted as having any value. And most of social reproduction is still outside the formal economy. It’s seen as not having a value. Since the whole raison d’être of capitalism is precisely to accumulate profits and thereby to expand capital, that’s the system’s sole measure of value.

This brings me to the issue of crisis tendencies. Over time, what can happen is a systemwide failure to invest in social reproduction. Capital doesn’t want to pay a decent wage for personal housework, for example, or childcare. Corporations don’t want to pay generous enough taxes to fund high-quality public services such as childcare or education and so on. So, there’s a constant chiseling away at social reproduction, and it can go so far under certain conditions that you endanger society’s capacity to reproduce itself in this human social sense.

We know from Friedrich Engels’s great work on the condition of the working class in England how this looked in the nineteenth century, in an early phase of capitalism where the new industries were dragooning women and children into factories and mines along with men. In fact, capitalists loved child labor and women’s labor, because they thought they could pay less and they thought that these would be docile workers who wouldn’t make trouble.

In any case, you got in this situation a real crisis of social reproduction, where the working class was really not able to reproduce itself, to turn out laborers with the health and the skills and the human capacities that were needed. It provoked an enormous amount of political conflict and struggle and organizing aimed at first at passing protective legislation banning child labor, limiting hours, setting minimum wages, instituting health and safety measures, and so on. All of that was an attempt to try to draw some boundaries and bolster the processes of social reproduction, which capital left to itself was depleting and destroying.

Daniel Denvir

This is a core crisis tendency that you identify as boundary struggles.

Nancy Fraser

Yes. I coined this phrase “boundary struggles” to try to give a name to a kind of struggle that is built into capitalist society precisely around these institutionalized divisions between production and reproduction, between the economy and the political system, between nonhuman nature and human society, which is supposed to not be natural.

These are divisions that are definitive and constitutive of capitalist society. They are structural. And they are also points or locations in society where conflict congregates. Where should we draw the line between production and reproduction? These struggles that I just mentioned over protective legislation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were struggles over just that question. They were at the same time struggles over the boundary between the state and the market, as people debated whether the state should step in and impose a minimum wage, a health and safety regime, and so forth.

I think that the usual Marxian story about class struggle, while very powerful and absolutely pertinent to our time, doesn’t fully account for struggles outside the workplace proper, which could also be thought of as class struggles if we had a wider sense of what we meant by class — but that are, in any case, boundary struggles.

In the past fifty years, we’ve transitioned to a new form of capitalism. I guess, if it’s fifty years, it’s maybe not so new anymore, but in any case this form is often called neoliberalism. I prefer to call it financialized capitalism. Whatever we call it, it’s very different from the previous regime of capitalism that flourished in the United States starting with the New Deal and elsewhere in the aftermath of World War II. I call that state-managed capitalism, but you could call it social democratic capitalism or monopoly capitalism.

The key idea of state-managed capitalism was that the state weighed in in support of social reproduction. It said, Ok, we’re not going to let the pursuit of profit run entirely roughshod over people’s ability to have a life and even to generate new workers that capital wants down the line. We’re going to throw some weight on the scale. We’re going to tax capital. We’re going to pay for schooling. And we’re going to insist that wages be maintained at a certain level to allow for a home life, and so on.

I want to be clear that I am the last person to say that this New Deal or state-managed regime was a golden age of any kind. It was premised on a lot of built-in domination. It was premised on women’s subordination through the idea of the family wage, the idea that a working man should be paid a salary sufficient to support his nonemployed wife and children so that a family should need only one salary, one worker. That at one level seems like a luxury to us today, but at another level it was premised on a kind of male-dominated household model in which women were dependent on men. It was also premised on the ability of the wealthy states of the capitalist core to siphon value from what was then called the Third World, what we today call the Global South.

Daniel Denvir

You identify race and racism as well as an unequal, predatory, imperialist interstate system as core features of capitalism. How do they then relate to the three major distinctions you identify between production and reproduction, economy and polity, and human and nonhuman nature?

Nancy Fraser

I said earlier that gender dominance and subordination is hardwired into capitalism as we’ve known it. I would say the same is true for racial and ethnic dominance and subordination. Racial oppression is not contingently or accidentally related to capitalism but is structurally inscribed in it. And the reason has to do with the fact that capital always has a stake in expropriating labor forces and raw materials and other assets for which it doesn’t fully pay.

Capitalism developed in a dualist way, historically. On the one hand, you have the iconic working men who go to the factory and get a wage roughly equal to the costs of their social reproduction. On the other hand, you have actually a much larger population of people whose assets are simply being seized in one way or another by capital, by imperial and colonial states, or even by their own states in our time.

Daniel Denvir

This is accumulation by dispossession, which is sort of the continuous, persistent version of primitive accumulation, which is more of the historically specific version of it.

Nancy Fraser

Yes, exactly. This phrase “accumulation by dispossession” is David Harvey’s phrase, and it’s a good one. I’ve preferred, though, to speak about expropriation versus exploitation. Jason Moore, the eco-Marxist critic, writes that “behind Manchester stands Mississippi.” That’s a beautiful phrase. It’s so succinct. What it means is that you don’t have the ability to profitably exploit factory labor in the great textile mills of Manchester without the raw material of cotton produced by slaves in Mississippi. That cheapens the crucial input, the raw material for the textile production. It also helps to have slave-produced sugar and tobacco and rum and other commodities that allow you to pay lower wages because you have cheap consumer goods, so to speak.

The point is that exploitation and expropriation have always been intertwined in the history of capitalism. They still are today. And overall, roughly speaking, that distinction between exploitation and expropriation has corresponded to what W. E. B. Du Bois famously called the “color line.” It has been overwhelmingly people of color who found themselves on the expropriation side of the boundary and people who were called whites or Europeans or metropolitans who found themselves on the exploitation side.

Exploitation is no picnic, but it’s still a more privileged position than that of expropriation. I think that that division is the sort of fundamental structural basis of racial oppression in capitalist society. It’s not just an economic distinction. It’s not that one gets paid and the other doesn’t. It’s also that one is free and the other is dependent or enslaved and subjugated, whether as a colonial subject or a piece of chattel property.

Marx insists that in wage labor the workers are free just to sign a labor contract. They have a certain level of rights, even if they don’t have the material means to exercise these in a fully free way. The expropriated subjects — and this is the very meaning of expropriation — don’t have rights and protections. Their persons, property, lands, animals, and children can simply be seized, and there’s no power they can call upon to protect them. So, to be expropriable, means to be inherently subject to violation, and that’s another important meaning of racialization.

Daniel Denvir

Your analysis on this reminded me of an insight from Barbara Fields, who writes about how racism is a result of the contradictions between what you would describe as the political and economic spheres of liberal capitalism. You have liberal democracy proclaiming liberty and some sort of equality for all, but you have this economy that’s obviously brutally unequal, most extremely so with the expropriated labor of African slaves. Racism is a sort of provisional solution to this contradiction.

Nancy Fraser

There is a contradiction in that, unlike feudalism and slave societies, capitalism really depends on the idea that members of the official working class are free individuals. They have to struggle for it, but they get the vote and they get civil rights and other rights. On the other hand, capitalism doesn’t work without this substrate and without this background, this hidden abode.

It’s sort of analogous to the situation of the housewife. Her labor is not strictly speaking expropriated by capital. Likewise, you have these vast swathes of humanity throughout the world, in colonies and postcolonies but also in the colony within the core.

The freedom of the worker — which is, of course, the freedom to be exploited, let’s not overstate it — depends upon the subjection of the “nonworker,” the racialized other. Whatever benefits the exploited have are off the backs of the expropriated. Of course, the real benefits don’t go to the exploited at all but to capital.

Race is central in that capitalism always requires both expropriation and exploitation, and it assigns those functions to two different populations. The result is racialization.

Daniel Denvir

A particularly interesting history you sketch out is how different forms of expropriation by way of things like colonial plunder and slavery also relate to specific forms of environmental dispossession. You describe it as a relationship between free labor and expropriation on the one hand and fossil fuel energy versus human energy on the other. Can you explain that dynamic and how that plays out, not just between nation states but within them as well?

Nancy Fraser

We should begin by recognizing that capitalist production, and indeed all production, relies on energy. I’m influenced by a really interesting essay by J. R. McNeill, who distinguished between somatic and extrasomatic energy regimes. A somatic regime depends upon human and animal bodies to convert solar and chemical energy into mechanical energy and then to use that to perform labor. It’s human muscle and oxen and horses and all of that. For millennia, including in the early stages of capitalism, that’s what powered production.

Then, you get this very important moment with the introduction of the steam engine. Now, you can actually convert chemical to mechanical energy outside of living bodies. You can do it in a machine, in an engine. This is a total game changer because it appears to mean that you can liberate yourself from the need for biomass. Whereas before, if you wanted to scale up production, you had to conquer more bodies and more lands to feed them, now, apparently, all you need to do is get a little bit of coal ore and a smaller number of workers, put them inside a factory, and crank up the steam engine.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The harshest and most obvious fallout from a couple of centuries of rampant carbon emissions lands on people in the Global South — and one should add communities of color within the Global North who are subject to environmental racism, toxic dumping, and so on.

This ecological part has to do with expropriation and imperialism, which in turn has to do with the way that capitalism divides economy from polity. It sets up a world economic system and then superimposes on that a multistate political system of vastly unequal states.

Daniel Denvir

The front story of the future is Elon Musk, it’s self-driving cars, it’s high-frequency trading, it’s seamless and near-total automation. It’s technological fixes to the ecological crisis. What do you make of that front story, and what’s the backstory that it’s dependent on but disavowing?

Nancy Fraser

It’s a hyperfantasy of freedom from materiality. It’s the idea that we can catapult ourselves out of embodiment, out of our planetary material existence, and give birth to ourselves as pure mind or symbolic beings. But these fantasies of liberation from nature and from labor have always meant one thing: off-loading our burdens onto other bodies and other natures. Again, a Manchester is only possible because there’s a Mississippi somewhere else. That means other people whose conditions of life are being devastated.

Daniel Denvir

Like the other divisions you outline, the one between politics and economics mystifies deep and mutually dependent relationships. Today, that seems really clear on a lot of different fronts. You have the Tea Party and then Donald Trump and the way that freedom of movement for capital has been met with this increasing nationalism, hardening of borders, and xenophobia.

I’d like you to explain the difference between objective and subjective crises and, more concretely, to explain the current dynamic we’re witnessing between economic and political crises, resulting in what seems to be a legitimation crisis for the system.

Nancy Fraser

When we’re talking about the dynamic whereby capital is always trying to confiscate as much as it can in the way of free labor, free nature, and free political benefits without paying their costs, that’s an objective system dynamic. Without some kind of intervention, left to its own devices, it will necessarily end up undermining, destabilizing, and exhausting the very background conditions that the system needs. That’s an objective story about a crisis tendency, parallel to what Marx meant by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

On the other hand, when we talk about class struggles and boundary struggles, we’re talking about how people react and respond to the objective tendencies. Do they register that there’s something really negative going on or not? Do they actually think it’s a crisis or not? What it means to think it’s a crisis is to think: This is not accidental. These bad things are going on, but there’s something about the system itself that is generating them, and this system could be changed. We stand at a crossroads and might be willing to undertake the responsibility to organize collectively to change them. That’s all part of what it means to react subjectively, to assume the burden of calling something a crisis and responding to it in that way.

The present form of capitalism — you can call it neoliberal, globalizing, or financialized capitalism — has brought us to an objective crisis. We have all kinds of indicators of that, including a decline of life expectancy for important segments of the population in the United States. So, there’s definitely an objective crisis going on, and it is more and more being registered by people as such.

However, that’s when the fun begins, because everything depends on how people who register a crisis interpret it: where they think its true sources are, who’s the culprit, what’s to blame, what needs to be changed. At any moment historically, there is more than one such story around a crisis. You mentioned a legitimation crisis. What that means is that the sort of established narrative through which people interpreted what was going on in a normal noncrisis period has lost its credibility.

There’s a breakdown of hegemony of the dominant narratives and meanings and schemas that people use to interpret. When that happens, you get a rush of alternative schemas and stories that flood into the public sphere, and you [see] competition among them to establish a counterhegemony, another dominant narrative. I think that’s exactly what’s going on today. The flood of new people into Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, the success of Podemos in Spain, and so on. These are attempts to get in there with an alternative narrative.

Daniel Denvir

In New York, we have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial challenge. In the United States, there’s definitely a countervailing energy that has antecedents going back to the anti-WTO protest era and running through Occupy and Black Lives Matter and then through the Bernie Sanders campaign. Trump’s election further delegitimates a Clintonian version of what you call progressive neoliberalism.

Nancy Fraser

By progressive neoliberalism, what I mean is that there’s a veneer of progressive and seemingly egalitarian, emancipatory aspirations that got tied up with the same political economy that created NAFTA and the WTO, repealed Glass-Steagall, and basically invited industry to decamp and finance to metastasize. Bill Clinton is the key architect of all this with the so-called New Democrats.

In the last thirty years, that political economy has really clobbered the US working class. And when I say working class, I mean that in the broadest sense. I don’t just mean construction workers, factory workers, miners, and drillers. I mean the whole working class, which includes obviously people of color and women and immigrants. So, the working class and many people who would call themselves middle class have been clobbered by this political economy.

Trump’s genius, though he didn’t invent it, was convincing an important segment of the population to associate that political economy with feminism, multiculturalism, and the coddling of blacks and immigrants. And it’s not that crazy, because more conventional segments of those social movements have allied with those governments and with those corporate forces responsible for neoliberalism.

Daniel Denvir

Your argument on this point near the end of the book is really interesting. You write that this prior hegemonic political order was divided between progressive and reactionary neoliberalism. That dynamic unraveled in part due to these left- and right-populist challenges from Sanders and Trump. But since taking office, obviously Trump has in so many ways doubled down on neoliberalism. His biggest legislative accomplishment to date is just the most standard Reaganite Republican tax cut imaginable. Your argument is that, as a result of that, he has also doubled down on his reactionary social politics and xenophobia.

Nancy Fraser

Prior to the Sanders-Trump moment, we had a situation in which we had two choices: a reactionary neoliberalism or a progressive neoliberalism. You could choose between ethnonationalism and multiculturalism, but either way you were stuck with financialization and deindustrialization. Then, we had this astonishing moment where suddenly the political universe widens and there are some other options. I would call them a progressive populism on the Sanders side versus a reactionary populism on the Trump side, at least when he was campaigning. Now, Trump in power is another story. In a bait and switch, the economic side of the populism disappears, and he doubles down on hyperreactionary neoliberalism.

There is a big battle going on between the Clintonite wing and the Sanders wing for what resistance to Trump’s reactionary neoliberalism is going to look like. The Clinton wing’s aim is to restore the status quo ante, meaning to reinstate progressive neoliberalism. That, to me, is such a devastatingly bad idea. All that does is recreate the conditions that gave rise to Trump and prepares the way for future Trumps, even more horrible Trumps. And believe me, there can be more horrible Trumps than this one.

Daniel Denvir

It’s a devastatingly bad idea, but it’s also a very predictable one, because in a legitimation crisis, it’s no surprise that the actors in the discredited order have no other tools besides the ones that used to work.

Nancy Fraser

There’s a tendency in situations like this for people to feel they need to close ranks to fight the fascist menace. First of all, we should talk about whether fascism is even the right word. I doubt that it is. But in any case, we’re not at a point where closing ranks is the only sane thing to do. Moments do come up in history where you have to do that. This is not one, or at least not yet.

I think now is a moment for the Left and progressive populists or democratic socialists to try not to close ranks but instead to try to split off the mass of people who identify with feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism from their neoliberal allies who have ventriloquized their demands and claims in a form that is perfectly consistent with neoliberal financialization. Let’s try to create a split. Let’s be done with Lean In feminism, with corporate feminism. I’m part of an initiative of socialist feminists who have tried to start something we call the feminism for the 99 percent. And I’d like to see an environmentalism for the 99 percent, an anti-racism for the 99 percent, and so on.

We can and we should split the progressive ranks, and at the same time we should try to split Trump’s ranks. I’m convinced that a lot of the white working-class people who voted for him are not forever wedded to this xenophobic, anti-immigrant, ethnonational, and racist perspective. Eight and a half million of them voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016. That shows right off the bat that they’re not card-carrying racists.

They voted Sanders, many of them, in the Democratic primary. They’re opportunistic. They’re voting for whoever talks a good line on the economy, on jobs, on wages, and on public services. And Trump did talk a better line on some of those things than Hillary Clinton did. But we can talk an even better line on those things. And we can link it to progressive views about gender, race, immigration, and so on.

Daniel Denvir

I want to ask you about how alienation fits into all of this, because it seems like it’s key to getting beyond narrowly economistic analyses, understanding things like the Pizzagate conspiracy theory or the really lethal disaffection among white workers — in terms of the deaths of despair from suicide and opioids — who in many cases are still much better off than their counterparts of color.

You write that “markets and labor power change the internal character of what is traded on them and the surrounding form of life in which they are located.” What is alienation? What is it that we’re alienated from or made alien to?

Nancy Fraser

There’s a long tradition of writing about alienated labor that goes back to Marx’s very early writings. The concept refers to exploited wage labor within capitalism, where the worker is alienated from his or her work but also from fellow human beings and from what Marx famously called our “species being,” our humanity, our freedom to collectively decide what kind of lives we want to live and to build the institutions to do that.

People today are alienated from all of those things. There’s nothing more alienated, in terms of labor, than having to follow a script in interacting with customers, either on the phone or at a fast-food joint, while you’re also doing some backbreaking or repetitive labor in horrible conditions. So, we’re no strangers to alienated labor. I think the popularity of freelancing, even though that’s quite mystified in certain ways, does speak to a hunger for creativity, for being able to determine how you use your time, being an individual, not just being under the watchful surveillance of somebody else.

But I would say the deepest meaning of alienation and being unalienated has to do with freedom and democracy. Capitalism steals from us not just our labor and energy but our ability to decide collectively the most important questions about how we want to live. How hard do we want to work? How many hours? How much leisure do we want to have? What do we want to leave for future generations? How do we want to relate to nonhuman nature? What should we do with the social surplus that we collectively produce?

These are fundamental questions, and they are decided now essentially by a small handful of people who appropriate the surplus we produce and basically use market mechanisms to invest for the sake of maximal expansion.

Daniel Denvir

In other words, we live in a society where Elon Musk gets to decide that he’s firing a car into space for fun and that’s how our social wealth is being used.

Nancy Fraser

Absolutely. Whereas there might be many other things that we would prefer to do with that wealth. We might even prefer to produce less wealth and to live more simply, companionably, socially, and easily in a more relaxed way. We could have a much freer and more democratic life. But that’s not compatible with capitalism.