Brain Ghosts

Nancy Fraser writes „From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond“

Brain Ghosts

Faith, Love & Hope

Nancy Fraser
A "progressive populism"? For America? For Europe? (Image: Wikimedia/Bunnyfrosch)

(This is no professional translation(1)with the exception of the Fraser quotes, which I adopted from "American Affairs", I used for the translation ... and tried my very best ...).


"Every class can "miss" its historic mission historically. Other "classes" then have to fight "old battles" under new historical conditions. Awareness of history and responsible, practical, transformative activity alone can achieve this"(1)Rudi Dutschke, Zur Literatur des revolutionären Sozialismus; quoted from:, visited on 3-VII-2018..


I could have known better: With Slavoj Žižek, Benjamin Kunkel, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, Didier Eribon, Judith Butler and others, a "progressive" backwardness manifests itself as a conceivable opposition to the neoliberal and populist-autocratic (ff) world view of the present. The term "conceivable" has a special meaning here: because what is necessary today, namely thinking that reflects the conditions of the future at the technological altitude of time, is, it seems, unthinkable. One of the most striking gaps in the retro-political view is the lack of a differentiated, global analysis - namely the fundamentally changed technological economy that can no longer be subsumed under the concept of „capital“ of the 19th century - plus an unresolved critical review of the existing canon of values of the left and the right (2)...which, however, is none of my business.... For today, this is only a preamble, because I want to deal specifically with a text by Nancy Fraser; in sum, however, and in perspective, the two tasks outlined above remain on the note. 

Nancy Fraser's essay: "Vom progressiven Neoliberalismus zu Trump" first appeared in American Affairs (Winter 2017) and has been then translated for the new German online magazine It is helpful to know that adamag is a subsidiary project of "Jacobin" Magazine,"... a leading voice within the American left. From a socialist perspective Jacobin reports on politics, culture and economy".

It is difficult to grasp the spirit of our time, and even more difficult is an appropriate debate. Numerous hurdles stand in the way: an ever-increasing share of the obstruction of thinking is taken over by a trend that I summarise as "apostasy from rationality". The communicative institute of "logical argument" is meaningless and indifferent to the personnel sailing under this flag; there is no before and no after, no binding back to their own position; only the moment, only the assertion counts. It seems that increasingly relevant parts of the opinion-forming media are moving to this camp, or at least have trouble fending off the unspirit of this attitude. (3)A small but significant example, it seems to me, is a comment by Andreas Mihm from the FAZ in which he claims that the shutdown of coal-fired power plants only contributes to climate protection if "others" also shut down their coal-fired power plants. It is, plus/minus, this kind of logical emptiness, and thus also contaminating reasoning, that binds growing proportions of attention. The remaining representatives of a "liberal public" try to counter the trend with fact checking, enlightenment, dialectics and argumentation, they denounce the fake news as best they can and expose the "lie" where it appears; well. All this has no, if not even opposite effects.

Another small but once again louder and increasingly self-confident group of intellectuals tries to keep up with the zeitgeist using the conceptual tools of the past and previous century.
One of these is Nancy Fraser.

It is a well-known fact that a conflict becomes particularly unpleasant when the opponent's position comes closer or even close to one's own: Nothing is worse than the mistakes in one's own camp, and nothing prevents opposition from becoming powerful more effectively than such "quarrels". On the other hand, "historical consciousness" promotes a justified mistrust of "false levelling": the lowest common denominator has never been the right one!
In this contradictory attitude I meet the author.

Her tone alone irritates me (4)Well, of course I don't know to what extent the translation from American English reflects the original "sound" of Nancy Fraser; in vocabulary and ductus the text (the translation) appears as if from a distant past - not by chance, as Nancy Fraser relies on Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937, philosopher and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party) right at and from the beginning, and I remember Rudi Dutschke as the first to this sound just as sensibly. There is talk of „ruling classes“ and „class divisions“, „hegemonic blocs“ and „hegemonic crises“, „progressive neoliberalism“ (whoa!), „precautions for distribution and recognition“ and... „political economy“. Quote: "Only when decked out as progressive could a deeply regressive political economy become the dynamic center of a new hegemonic bloc.“

The Delta to the time of this attitude of speaking is realized in a strictly feminist perspective (again: in the translation); men appear in it at best as persons, i.e. Trump or Obama, or as perpetrators of evil, such as bankers, real estate tycoons, hedge fund speculators and investors; as the common, socially one half of humanity they see themselves subordinated to "women workers, migrant women, feminists ". As much as I understand the content of this linguistic gesture and, as far as it finally aims at a historical balance, I emphatically support it, as much as I abhor the linguistic lumberjackism so expressed and pushed to the binding standard and also the shrill, implicit claim, long since degenerated from protest to default, to sole representation.

First of all, it should be noted that Nancy Fraser states a global crisis in her essay. At first glance, this seems to have only a political surface, but „The phenomena just evoked constitute the specifically political strand of a broader, multifaceted crisis, which also has other strands—economic, ecological, and social—all of which, taken together, add up to a general crisis“. Although this crisis is different in each region, there are overarching global trends and phenomena - including the massive loss of confidence in social administration by the ruling elites - which justify speaking of a comprehensive crisis. That's right, my opinion. 

And wrong, on the crucial point that the real cause of this crisis is not mentioned, and I am even afraid that it remains unrecognised. This real cause, which should have been addressed first and foremost - and which would then have completely changed the course of the analytical derivatives, is the historically unprecedented pace of technological change - especially in interaction with globalization. This change is the reason why the elites have lost their compasses and recipes: The description of the world, the causalities and laws according to which the world was organized no longer apply, are at least so seriously changed that, as Mrs. Merkel once put it, the elites drive "on sight"

Nancy Fraser's text will not recover from this fundamental analytical shortcoming - and in this respect it seems to me fundamentally unsuitable for a strategic orientation of political action. 

I first read the text in the German translation - and my subsequent criticism refers mainly to this version. However, I had some technical problems with my web software, my text crashed, disappeared, I had to start three times from scratch (only on the web site), and as it turned out, I finally read the original English version. Only then did I realize that I had obviously not understood the impetus of the essay correctly: because at first I had come to the opinion that Mrs Fraser had written a far-reaching, fundamental proposal for the coming course of history. Especially this old-socialist tone is inherent in something like a historical hubris that had led me to this view. But then, at least that is my final interpretation, I noticed that Mrs Fraser was only looking forward to the next two or three years. And for the current trip on sight, so to speak, only proposes to set the blinker differently.
This the proposal is what we are discussing below.

One of the main ideas of the text is a "progressive (as opposed to a reactionary) neoliberalism", where the "hegemonic bloc" offers meritocratic recognitions to progressive parts of society instead of equality, in order to urge these progressive parts to legitimize the existing system.

"At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy. Protecting the environment meant carbon trading. Promoting home ownership meant subprime loans bundled together and resold as mortgage-backed securities. Equality meant meritocracy."

Transposed into another language this does not mean very much else than that the liberal left and/or the left2center liberals have allowed themselves to be corrupted by the political economy of the "Goldman-Sachsification": "Now associated with the forward-thinking and the liberatory, the cosmopolitan and the morally advanced, the dismal suddenly became thrilling."  We had already encountered this new "hegemonic block" in the text, now it swung up to act as a historical subject (5)and only dogmatic linguists and purists would get their toenails curled by this. "To achieve hegemony, however, the emerging progressive neoliberal bloc had to defeat two different rivals.", namely the old social democracy (the "New Democrats" of the "New Deal") and a reactionary neoliberalism, based in the republican-oriented arms-, oil- and financial industries. "Progressive neoliberalism mostly won that battle as well, but at a cost." Namely at the expense of the Rust Belt and other younger industrial centres, which were particularly hard hit by the NAFTA free trade agreement, China's accession to the WTO and the deregulation of banks. 

5. aims to exert influence, "We don't want to be right, but win". Therefore, it should be assumed that Nancy Fraser's text also has something to do with us (Europeans). Now, at the latest, as the text turns to the US heartland, doubts arise. On the other hand, the editorial staff may have thought of something, and perhaps we "only" have to provide a certain amount of regional translation services. Possibly, one could assume, Fraser's analyses can also be applied to the German rOst Belt? "Given the accelerating pace of deindustrialization, the proliferation of precarious, low-wage McJobs, the rise of predatory debt, and the consequent decline in living standards for the bottom two-thirds of Americans, it was only a matter of time before someone would proceed to occupy that empty space and fill the gap." 

Perhaps there is some analogy between the developments under Clinton and Schröder; however, this could not be seamlessly correlated with the latest unemployment statistics (lowest level since 1990(6)even in the East, the unemploymentrate is declining; sources 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - visited in July 2018) or the private debt level (the private insolvency trend is declining); perhaps and more likely with income distribution (7)the poverty rate fluctuates by 15%, but in the East by 20%, sources 1, 2, 3 - visited in July 2018). Above all, however, the "Obama abyss" is missing in our economy of hopes; for which Macron might come into question, but ... he is french! Anyway: the text sections on Obama, the election campaign for succession and also the development under Trump are very US-specific and can barely, hardly or not at all be transferred to European conditions. And that reading it is tedious is only mentioned in the margins.

More interesting, on the other hand, could be the final sequence in which Fraser explicitly advocates a "new progressive populism" as a ".... viable candidate for a counterhegemony". This figure is also spooking the German formation of opinion and perhaps it is worthwhile to examine this proposal again among the parameters presented by Fraser.

The people to be addressed are certainly at the centre of such conceivable populism. In Fraser's case, as we can guess, it is women workers, migrant women, feminists: "More than that, it [this option] could position that class, understood expansively, as the leading force in an alliance that also includes substantial segments of youth, the middle class, and the professional-managerial stratum.“ An amazing idea, ... possible only if we assume that the intellectual access of the US women worker is substantially different from that of the German women workers, for example. In Germany, in any case, the "organised masses" is characterised by the fact that decades ago they cast their votes in the (dwindling(8) of the 42 million employees, only 6 million are unionised, around half as many as in 1991) trade unions and has since then limited themselves to the use of the whistle. Meanwhile, the trade unions have moved from the political economy camp to the camp of Brussels or Berlin lobby organisations. In other words, the worker as such is an extinct species, anyway; it still exists, but in political and social terms at best still as a holder of voiceless shares. It cannot be completely excluded that there is a more pronounced class consciousness among migrant women. However, we will not learn this for a good while, (and I mean this in fact, not denunciatory) because if its expression does not fail because of the traditional role-specific rules of behaviour, it is probably because of linguistic ability to adequately formulate a political position above a slogan. Assuming and implying that these de facto hurdles would by chance not stand in the way of a historically fortunate lottery, however, it would also be a question of whether the empirical formula "across all social groups" incorporated into the argument is more than just a brain ghosts

How many times have we been fooled? A rainbow coalition, however compiled, it is in the nature of any negative exclusion procedure, can only agree on a few rudimentary watchwords, all of which necessarily ignore the given problems (usually: in favour of a few redistribution demands). Much of what Nancy Fraser is arguing about here is based on faith, love and hope: "By shutting down the economic-populist face of his campaign, Trump’s hyper-reactionary neoliberalism effectively seeks to reinstate the hegemonic gap he helped to explode in 2016. Except that it cannot now suture that gap. Now that the populist cat is out of the bag, it is doubtful that the working-class portion of Trump’s base will be satisfied to dine for long on (mis)recognition alone."

This is ... no more than ideology remote from reality, and if she believes she can include women experts and leadership milieus in her coalition, this can only be explained by the fact that she does not know these milieus. What would, what should be on the agenda of such a counterhegemonic block? Everywhere, where it is not only about identity but about the real world problems (which, moreover, are treated by Nancy Fraser extremely cursory and with the conceptual fly swab as "political, ecological, social and moral..."), these milieus, to exaggerate polemically, are to be located in the "ranks of the perpetrators", at least in those of the problem-promoting economic complex; and now they should take to the streets, in front of the video surveillance systems of the major cities, and stand up against the interests of their breadwinners? Incidentally, this argument naturally also applies to women workers: their "political" positioning is already "courageous" when "only" their own interests, i.e. redistribution, are at stake.  

Apart from these, I believe, oldish and backward views, which are caught in the spirit of an idiom of 68 that has been openend up to questions of identity but otherwise (self-)uncritical, and which no longer has access to the questions that actually move and overthrow the world, apart from this, I also wonder - - - to what extent progressive populism differs from that kind of autocratic popular blissing a la Hugo Chaves or the Castro brothers. Nancy Fraser is keeping this question in the dark!

And so as not to raise any questions here: All populism is necessarily autocratic! If it were not, but "democratic" in the established manner, it would get stuck in the "checks and balances" of the existing system (see Tsipras or Obama). And now, if she could hear me, it might be a surprising twist for Mrs. Fraser: I'm not sure I'm against it. I was not immune to the realization that the existing policy instruments and procedures are simply inadequate to deal with the existing problems. Only then does the discussion begin: populism, also "progressive" (9)even if I would have to dust off the term from the archive, and probably autocratic in one form or another, but then please: filled with what kind of content, what topics or substances?
"Liberation"? Oh, my goodness, what is this?
"Redistribution and recognition"? Get the hell away from me! 

  • I am interested in how a society without work can be organized?
  • I want to know where an African dream might come from that considers emigration for the wrong recipe?
  • Somebody please tell me what measures the financial sector is taking to abandon its world roulette?
  • And finally and of course the last question: how can human survival be ensured on this planet?

These are the questions that move me! And it is not enough for me to be fobbed off with a few buzzwords in the pastoral gesture of righteousness. If you want to propose a program, you have to offer a few answers. I don't see any answers from Mrs. Fraser. 

And finally, the last question: Assuming such progressive populism had then prevailed, and we assume: with the right content, ––– who controls it? Who will prevent and how that in the end a "progressive" Trump, Erdogan or Stalin will emerge? Every populism acts with exclusion: we - against "the others"; who would keep this in the bridle of a civil society? And how?
One may ask that after all!


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