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Marketization, Social Protection, Emancipation:

Toward a Neo-Polanyian Conception of Capitalist Crisis

Nancy Fraser

1. Introduction: why Polanyi today

By all rights, the current crisis of neoliberal capitalism should alter the landscape of critical theorizing. During the last two decades, most theorists kept their distance from the sort of large-scale social theorizing associated with Marxism. Apparently accepting the necessity of academic specialization, they settled on one or another branch of disciplinary inquiry, conceived as a freestanding enterprise. Whether the focus was jurisprudence or moral philosophy, democratic theory or cultural criticism, the work proceeded in relative disconnection from fundamental questions of social theory. The critique of capitalist society, pivotal for earlier generations, all but vanished from the agenda of critical theory. Critique centered on capitalist crisis, especially, was pronounced reductive, deterministic, and dépassé.

Today, however, such verities lie in tatters. With the global financial system teetering, worldwide production and employment in freefall, and the looming prospect of a prolonged recession, the economic aspect of capitalist crisis is impossible to ignore. But the same is true of the ecological aspect, given global warming, worsening pollution, resource exhaustion, and new forms of bio-commodification that penetrate nature’s very core. Then, too, the social dimension of crisis is increasingly salient–witness the devastated neighborhoods, displaced families and war-and-diseased ravaged communities that crisscross our planet of slums. Nor can one overlook the political dimension: the crisis, first, of the modern territorial state; second, of the latter’s would-be regional successors, above all the European Union; third, of US hegemony; and fourth, of the institutions of global governance–all of which lack the imagination to envision solutions and the will and capacity to implement them. Finally, there is the crisis of critique itself and the crisis of emancipation, as neither critical theorists nor emancipatory social movements have so far risen to the occasion.

A crisis of this sort, multidimensional and overdetermined, supplies the inescapable backdrop for every serious attempt at critical theorizing. Henceforth, such theorizing can no longer avoid the question of capitalist society. Large-scale social theorizing, aimed at clarifying the nature and roots of crisis, as well as the prospects for an emancipatory resolution, should regain its central place in critical theory.

Yet how exactly should critical theorists approach these matters? How to overcome the deficits of discredited economistic approaches, which focus exclusively on the “system logic” of the capitalist economy? How to develop an expanded, non-economistic understanding of capitalist society, which incorporates the insights of feminism, postcolonialism, ecological thinking, and the cultural turn? How to conceptualize crisis as a social process in which economics is mediated by history, culture, and geography, politics, ecology, and law? How to comprehend the full range of social struggles in the current conjuncture, and how to assess the potential for emancipatory social transformation?

The thought of Karl Polanyi affords a promising starting point for such theorizing. His 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, elaborates an account of capitalist crisis as a multifaceted historical process that began with the industrial revolution in Britain and proceeded, over the course of a century and a half, to envelop the entire world, entraining imperial subjection, periodic depressions, and cataclysmic wars (Polanyi 1944). For Polanyi, moreover, capitalist crisis was less about economic breakdown in the narrow sense than about disintegrated communities, ruptured solidarities, and despoiled nature. Its roots lay less in intra-economic contradictions, such as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, than in a momentous shift in the place of economy vis-à-vis society. Overturning the heretofore universal relation, in which markets were embedded in social institutions and subject to moral and ethical norms, proponents of the “self-regulating market” sought to build a world in which society, morals, and ethics were subordinated to, indeed modeled on, markets. That aspiration, inherently self-undermining and unrealizable, drove developments so deeply destructive of human society as to spark an ongoing counter-movement for the latter’s “protection.” It was this “double movement”– the drive to expand and autonomize markets, followed by demands for social protection–that led, in Polanyi’s view, to fascism and world war.

Here, then, is an account of capitalist crisis that transcends the cramped confines of economistic thinking. Masterful, capacious, and encompassing action at multiple scales, The Great Transformation weaves together local protest, national politics, international affairs, and global financial regimes in a powerful historical synthesis. Like Marx, Polanyi emphasized social struggle; but in place of the conflict between labor and capital he foregrounded that between forces favoring marketization and cross-class movements for social protection. Like Marx, too, Polanyi sought to influence history, but his attitude to markets was more complex. Written with the aim of shaping the postwar order, The Great Transformation constitutes a brief for a new democratic regulatory regime that would defang markets, removing their sting without suppressing them altogether.

These points alone would qualify Polanyi as a promising resource for those who seek to understand the travails of 21st century capitalist society. But there are other, more specific reasons for turning to him today. The story told in The Great Transformation has strong echoes in current developments. There is at least a prima facie case for the view that the present crisis has its roots in recent efforts to disencumber markets from the regulatory regimes (both national and international) established in the aftermath of World War II. What we today call “neoliberalism” is nothing but the second coming of the very same 19th century faith in the “self-regulating market” that unleashed the capitalist crisis Polanyi chronicled. Now, as then, attempts to implement that creed are rending social bonds, destroying livelihoods, and despoiling nature. Now, as then, counterforces are mobilizing against the assault. On its face, then, today’s crisis is plausibly viewed as a second great transformation, a great transformation redux.

For many reasons, then, Polanyi’s perspective holds considerable promise for theorizing today. Yet critical theorists should not rush to embrace it uncritically. Even as it overcomes economism, The Great Transformation turns out, on closer inspection, to be deeply flawed. Focused single-mindedly on harms emanating from disembedded markets, the book overlooks harms originating elsewhere, in the surrounding “society.” 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. Focused overwhelmingly on struggles against market-based depredations, the book neglects struggles against injustices rooted in “society” and encoded in social protections.

Thus, critical theorists should not embrace Polanyi’s framework in the form in which appears in The Great Transformation. What is needed, rather, is a revision of that framework. The goal should be a new, quasi-polanyian conception of capitalist crisis that not only avoids reductive economism but also avoids romanticizing society.

That is my aim in the present essay. Seeking to develop a critique that comprehends society as well as economy, I propose to broaden Polanyi’s problematic to encompass a third project that crosscuts his central conflict between marketization and social protection. This third project, which I shall call emancipation, aims to overcome forms of domination rooted both in economy and society. Central to both iterations of the great transformation, the one analyzed by Polanyi and the one we are living through now, struggles for emancipation constitute the missing third that mediates every conflict between marketization and social protection. The effect of introducing this missing third will be to transform the double movement into a triple movement. Embracing marketization, social protection, and emancipation, the triple movement is designed to map the collision of those three political projects, each of which remains salient today. Thus, this figure will form the core of a new, quasi-Polanyian perspective that can clarify capitalist crisis in the 21st century.
2. Disembedded markets, social protection, and the double movement
I begin by recalling Polanyi’s distinction between embedded and disembedded markets. Although seldom referenced explicitly in The Great Transformation, this distinction is integral to all of that book’s central concepts, including society, protection, crisis, and the double movement. Especially important for my purposes here, it carries strong evaluative connotations, which need to be subject to critical scrutiny.

Famously, Polanyi distinguished two different relations in which markets can stand to society. On the one hand, markets can be “embedded,” enmeshed in non-economic institutions and subject to non-economic norms, such as “the just price” and “the fair wage.” On the other hand, markets can be “disembedded,” freed from extra-economic controls and governed immanently, by supply and demand. The first possibility, claims Polanyi, represents the historical norm; throughout most of history, in otherwise disparate civilizations and in widely separated locales, markets have been subject to non-economic controls, which limit what can be bought and sold, by whom, and on what terms. The second possibility is historically anomalous; a 19th century British invention, the “self-regulating market” was an utterly novel idea whose deployment, Polanyi contends, threatens the very fabric of human society.

For Polanyi, markets can never in fact be fully disembedded from the larger society. The attempt to make them so must inexorably fail, even when seemingly successful in the near term. For one thing, markets can function properly only against a non-economic background of cultural understandings and solidary relations; attempts to disembed them destroy that background–for example, by eroding trust. For another, the attempt to establish self-regulating markets proves so destructive of the fabric of society that it provokes widespread demands for their social regulation; thus, far from enhancing social cooperation, the project of disembedding markets inevitably triggers social crisis. In the end, accordingly, Polanyi’s distinction is better grasped as a difference in degree than as a difference in kind. While markets can never be fully disembedded, they can be more or less embedded. Equally, important, as we shall see, they can be embedded in different ways.

The Great Transformation recounts the process by which British commercial interests sought to engineer that impossible creature, the “self-regulating market.” In the process, they had to disable the non-economic trappings in which markets had been embedded. Especially crucial was removal of restrictions on the buying and selling of land, labor, and money, previously limited by customary rights and community mores, moral and religious norms, structures of family and kin, local authorities, and the mercantilist policies of national states. When the new, commercially dominated government of the 1830s and 40s dismantled the system of outdoor relief and the tariffs and subsidies on corn, it effectively denuded land, labor and money of their protective covering and transformed them into “fictitious commodities.” Abandoned to the laws of “the dismal science,” these fundamental bases of human society could now be bought and sold without regard for the consequences–human, social, natural.

According to Polanyi, however, “society” did not endure the assault with equanimity. From the beginning, rural landowners, urban workers, and other strata mobilized to protect endangered livelihoods, communities, and habitats. Despite their differences, Tories, socialists, cooperative movements, trade unionists, religious activists, environmentalists, and opponents of international free trade effectively constituted a broad cross-class party of social protection. Aiming to protect labor, they sought to limit its commodification through legislation regulating wages and hours. Aiming to protect the agricultural lifeblood of rural communities, they sought tariffs on imported foodstuffs. In parts progressive, in parts reactionary, the forces of social protection opposed those of marketization. Defending society against economy, they turned to politics in order to re-embed markets. Like their antagonists, they too mobilized in civil society and sought to capture state power. Thus, it was the sharpening struggle between these two camps, the marketizers and the protectionists, that leant the distinctive shape of a “double movement” to a century and a half of capitalist crisis.

To be sure, Polanyi’s account depends chiefly on English developments. But he understood the double movement as a general schema with broad application. That assumption is plausible, I think, given British hegemony, which proved so consequential for developments elsewhere–for the colonies, for the rival European powers, and for the international regimes that structured their interactions. In country after country, commercial interests sought to loosen mercantilist restraints; in country after country, too, they encountered resistance. By the twentieth century, moreover, the free-marketeers had established an international regime of free trade, based on the gold standard, that effectively universalized capitalist crisis. In the context of global economic depression, iterations of the double movement appeared throughout the world, as counterforces of varied ideological stripes (from New Dealers to Communists to fascists) sought social protection in various forms (democratic, totalitarian, racist), eventually engulfing the planet in war. Thus, the resolution, in Polanyi’s view, had to be international. Anticipating a new global financial regime, he advocated a framework that would foster market regulation and social provision by democratic welfare states. The goal should be to return the economy to its proper place in society.

In general, then, the distinction between embedded and disembedded markets is integral to all of Polanyi’s central concepts, including society, protection, crisis, and the double movement. Equally important, the distinction is strongly evaluative. Embedded markets are associated with social protection, figured as shelter from the harsh elements. Disembedded markets are associated with exposure, with being left to swim naked in “the icy water of egotistical calculation” (Marx and Engels 1848). These inflections–embedded markets are good, disembedded markets bad–carry over to the double movement. The first, exposing, pole, signifies danger; the second, protective pole, connotes safe haven.

What should we make of these ideas? On its face, the distinction between embedded and disembedded markets has much to offer to critical theorizing. For one thing, it points beyond economism, to an expansive understanding of capitalist crisis as a multifaceted historical process, as much social, political, and ecological as economic. Thematizing the commodification of nature, Polanyi integrated the ecological dimension, while also recognizing social disruption and political stalemate as constitutive aspects of capitalist crisis. In addition, his approach points beyond functionalism. Centering his account on the double movement, he gave pride of place to the projects of social actors–and to the collisions among them. In this way, Polanyi effectively jettisoned the orthodox view of crisis as an objective “system breakdown” and conceived it instead as an intersubjective process. Then, too, the distinction between embedded and disembedded markets makes possible a crisis critique that does not reject markets as such, but only the dangerous, disembedded, variety. Consequently, the concept of an embedded market affords the prospect of a progressive alternative both to the wanton disembedding promoted by neoliberals and to the wholesale suppression of markets traditionally favored by socialists.

Nevertheless, the evaluative subtext of Polanyi’s categories is problematic. On the one hand, his account of embedded markets and social protections is far too rosy. Romanticizing society, it occults the fact that the communities in which markets have historically been embedded have also been the locus of domination. Conversely, Polanyi’s account of disembedding is a bit too dark. Having idealized society, it occludes the fact that, whatever their other effects, processes that disembed markets from oppressive protections contain an emancipatory moment.

Let me be clear. Polanyi never intended to idealize traditional society, let alone to endorse domination. An independent socialist, he advocated the defanging of markets by egalitarian, democratic means precisely in order to forestall the return of authoritarian, fascist alternatives. Thus, he recognized that not all regimes of protection were morally equivalent. But Polanyi never translated his moral intuitions into theoretical terms. Absent categorical distinctions between better and worse forms of embedding, his framework remained implicitly tied to an inadequate evaluative contrast between good embedded markets and bad disembedded markets.

Present-day critical theorists must revise this framework. Avoiding both wholesale condemnation of disembedding and wholesale approbation of re-embedding, we must open both marketization and social protection to critical scrutiny. Exposing the normative deficits of society, as well as those of economy, we must validate struggles against domination wherever it roots.

To this end, I propose to draw on a resource not utilized by Polanyi, namely the insights of emancipatory movements. Unmasking power asymmetries occluded by him, these movements exposed the predatory underside of the embedded markets he tended to idealize. Protesting protections that were also oppressions, they raised claims for emancipation. Exploiting their insights, and drawing on the benefits of hindsight, I propose to rethink the double movement in relation to struggles for emancipation.
3. Emancipation: the missing “third”

To speak of emancipation is to introduce a category that does not appear in The Great Transformation. But the idea, and indeed the word, figured importantly throughout the period Polanyi chronicled. One need only mention epochal struggles to abolish slavery, liberate women, and free non-European peoples from colonial subjection–all waged in the name of “emancipation.” It is surely odd that these struggles should be absent from a work purporting to chart the rise and fall of what it calls “nineteenth century civilization.” But my point is not simply to flag an omission. It is rather to note that struggles for emancipation directly challenged oppressive forms of social protection, while neither wholly condemning nor simply celebrating marketization. Had they been included, these movements would have destabilized the dualistic narrative schema of The Great Transformation.

To see why, consider that emancipation differs importantly from Polanyi’s chief positive category, social protection. Whereas protection is opposed to exposure, emancipation is opposed to domination. While protection aims to shield society from the disintegrative effects of unregulated markets, emancipation aims to expose oppressive relations wherever they root, in society as well as in economy. While the thrust of protection is to subject market exchange to non-economic norms, that of emancipation is to subject both market exchange and non-market norms to critical scrutiny. Finally, whereas protection’s highest values are social security, social stability and solidarity, emancipation’s priority is to overcome domination.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that emancipation is always allied with marketization. If emancipation opposes domination, marketization opposes the extra-economic regulation of production and exchange, whether such regulation is meant to protect or to liberate. While marketization defends the supposed autonomy of the economy against encroachment from other social spheres, emancipation ranges across the boundaries that demarcate spheres, seeking to root out domination from every “sphere.” While the thrust of marketization is to liberate buying and selling from moral and ethical norms, that of emancipation is to scrutinize all types of norms from the standpoint of non-domination. Finally, whereas marketization claims as its values efficiency, individual choice, and the liberal norm of non-interference or negative liberty, emancipation’s priority, as I just said, is to overcome domination.

It follows that struggles for emancipation do not map neatly onto either prong of Polanyi’s double movement. Granted, such struggles appear on occasion to converge with marketization–as, for example, when they condemn as oppressive the very social protections that free-marketeers are seeking to eradicate. On other occasions, however, they converge with protectionist projects–as, for example, when they denounce the oppressive effects of deregulation. On still other occasions, finally, struggles for emancipation diverge from both prongs of the double movement–as, for example, when they aim neither to dismantle nor to defend existing protections, but rather to transform the mode of protection. Thus, convergences, where they exist, are conjunctural and contingent. Aligned consistently neither with protection nor deregulation, struggles for emancipation represent a third force that disrupts Polanyi’s dualistic schema. To give such struggles their due requires us to revise his framework–by transforming its double movement into a triple movement.
4. Rethinking “society”

Conceptualizing the triple movement requires revising the social-institutional basis of Polanyi’s framework. Critical theorists must replace his dualism of economy and society with a more complex societal schema, which can accommodate sources of historical dynamism other than marketization.

In effect, Polanyi himself introduced a third social-institutional term. In his account, as we already saw, the conflict between marketizers and protectionists turned largely on control of the state. It turned out that, despite the marketizers’ insistence that the “self-regulating market” was natural, they could advance their project only by deploying coercive state power. They needed the state both to disable the non-economic regulations that had previously embedded markets and to impose the rule of supply and demand on populations that were often resistant. Likewise, protectionists could only hope to re-embed markets by capturing and deploying state power. Only by recourse to the latter’s capacities could they devise and enforce regulations that would subject production and exchange to ethical norms. For both sides, then, the state was essential. Thus, the logic of Polanyi’s argument supposed a triad of social institutions: society, economy, state.

On further reflection, however, even this triad proves inadequate to his problematic. In fact, the embedding of markets can only be a joint product of state and society. Before laisser-faire, mercantilist states worked in tandem with non-state institutions, such as the church and the family, which supplied the cultural meanings and ethical norms that informed their regulatory policies. The same was true of the democratic welfare states of the post-World War Two era. The protections they instituted, too, were fashioned in part from meanings and norms that were already widely diffused throughout society. In fact, cultural meanings and norms constitute the indispensable Sittlichkeit, the ethical substance or normative “stuff,” that lies at the heart of all embedding. States cannot create this ethical substance out of whole cloth. They rely, rather, on pre-existing meanings and norms “to meet them halfway” (Habermas date: page).

Therein lies the rub. Historically, the meanings and norms that have served to embed markets have often been hierarchical and exclusionary. When institutionalized, they have stamped the arrangements that Polanyi thought protected society as oppressive. What these arrangements protected was not society simpliciter, but hierarchical exclusionary society–that is, to say, they protected some people at the expense of others. Premised on oppressive norms, they entrenched disparities in social status, political voice, and access to resources. The effect has been to consolidate domination–and to inspire struggles for emancipation.

As we shall see, emancipatory movements often direct their struggles against the ethical substance that informs social protection. Protesting protections that are also predations, they criticize the normative understandings protections rely on–understandings, not only of danger and safety, but also of family, community, and belonging; of personhood, dignity, and desert; of dependency, contribution, and work; hence, of gender, nationality and race. Making explicit this ethical substance, and subjecting it to critique, they transform taken-for-granted doxa into an object of political contestation. In effect, emancipatory movements bring matters previously immersed in what Polanyi called “society” into another societal realm: the public sphere of civil society.

To introduce emancipation, therefore, is perforce to introduce a new term, the public sphere of civil society. A communicative arena of contestation and public dispute, the public sphere of civil society is at once the space in which emancipatory movements critique the ethical substance of oppressive protections and the space in which those who defend the latter are forced to respond. It is the space, therefore, in which the tacitly diffused commonsense of “society” is transformed into explicitly avowed propositional positions, subject to critique, on the one hand, and to explicit defense, on the other. (Fraser 1989) It is through the give and take among such opposing perspectives that emancipation can, under propitious conditions, become a historical force–a force no less dynamic than marketization.

By including emancipation, then, the triple movement transforms the triad of society, economy, state into a quartet, which also includes the public sphere of civil society. The effect is to alter the valence of “society,” now contrasted with civil publicity. Whereas the latter operates in the modality of contestation, the former operates in the modality of doxa. Thus, the public sphere of civil society is a testing ground through which the norms infusing social protection may be forced to pass. Although it is itself replete with power asymmetries that compromise subordinates’ voice, the public sphere nevertheless affords the chance to subject protection’s Sittlichkeit to critical scrutiny–as, for example, when subordinates gain and amplify voice by creating subaltern counterpublic spheres (Fraser 1991).

But the introduction of civil publicity also complicates the view of the state. State regulation can now be characterized in terms of its relation to civil society. In one scenario, social protections are administered in a top-down étatist fashion, treated as the province of experts, and severed from the communicative processes of civil society. In another, they are administered in a participatory-democratic fashion, as permeable to, and in ongoing dialogue with, civil society. Then, too, the public sphere of civil society affords the possibility of querying the manner in which social protection is framed. In one scenario, social protection is “misframed,” designed to exclude some people whom markets expose to risk and/or some upon whose labor society relies. In another scenario, protection is “well-framed,” including within its circle of refuge all who contribute their labor and are at risk.

In general, then, the triple movement transforms the social-institutional structure of Polanyi’s thought. The effect is to open four lines of questioning he foreclosed. The first concerns the modality of the ethical substance that informs protection: have the operative norms been publicly vetted, or do they still exist in the mode of doxa? The second concerns the normative quality of that ethical substance: are the norms and meanings informing protection oppressive–in the sense that they violate the ideal of non-domination? Or are they emancipatory–in the sense that they accord with and advance that ideal? A third line of questioning concerns the modality of state regulation: is protection organized in a bureaucratic-étatist manner, which disempowers its beneficiaries, whom it treats less as active citizens than as passive consumers? Or is it organized in a participatory-democratic matter, as a mode of active citizenship? A fourth line of questioning concerns the framing of social protection: is protection misframed–in the sense that it excludes some who contribute their labor and are put at risk? Or is protection well-framed–in that the set of those shielded from market vagaries coincides with the set of those exposed?

Such questions were forcefully posed by emancipatory movements throughout the period Polanyi chronicled. No less pertinent and pressing today, they deserve a central place in the critical theory of capitalist crisis in the 21st century. Although foreclosed in The Great Transformation, they can be accorded the importance they deserve in a neo-Polanyian framework that incorporates emancipation, along with marketization and social protection, in the figure of the triple movement.
5. Emancipation, domination, participatory parity

But what precisely does emancipation mean in the present framework? To approach this question, let us briefly consider four of the many social movements that have mobilized under that banner: feminism, anti-imperialism, multiculturalism, and the New Left. Clearly, these movements did not share an explicit understanding of emancipation, and the forms of domination they protested were highly diverse. I believe, however, that a single normative aspiration subtends most (if not all) of their claims: to remove obstacles that prevent some people from participating fully, on a par with others, in social life. Thus, a major target of feminist protest is an androcentric status order, institutionalized throughout society, which subordinates women to men and precludes their full participation on terms of parity. For anti-imperialists, the central issue is a political-economic space divided between core and periphery, which denies non-Europeans the capacity to establish parity of participation in their own societies and prevents them from participating on a par with Europeans in transnational society. For multiculturalists, the chief target is a design of public space that institutionalizes majority-ethnic or majority-religious self-understandings, thereby denying parity of participation to members of minorities. For New Leftists, the burning issue was (and is) a bureaucratic organization of social protection that disempowers ordinary citizens and precludes their active participation in democratic life.

Clearly, these obstacles to participatory parity take different forms. In some cases, the principal locus of domination is society, while in others it is the economy. In still other cases, the chief culprit is civil society and/or the state. Thus, the substantive content of emancipation varies accordingly. In the some cases, emancipation means transforming the status order, replacing an ethical substance that supports hierarchy with one that fosters equal standing and participatory parity. In other cases, it means transforming political-economic space so as to overcome the division between core and periphery, while assuring access for all to the resources needed for full participation on equitable terms. Then again, emancipation sometimes means transforming the design of public space, deinstitutionalizing norms that advantage majorities, so as to enable members of minorities to participate as peers. In others cases, finally, it means transforming the mode of exercise of public power so as to foster equal participation and preclude domination. In practice, moreover, emancipation often means some combination of, or even all of, the above. In each case, however, its implicit thrust is to vindicate a single idea: the principle of participatory parity.

Elsewhere, I have sought to provide a fuller explication and philosophical defense of the principle of participatory parity (Fraser 2003). Here, I want simply to note that this idea provides an account of emancipation that befits the figure of a triple movement. Equally sensitive to status hierarchies, class differentials, and political asymmetries (which is to say, to misrecognition, maldistribution, and misrepresentation), the principle of participatory parity targets harms associated with four major institutional centers: society, economy, state, and public sphere. Thus, it extends the reach of critique beyond modes of domination that derive from markets, to include as well those encoded in social protections.

6. Emancipation from hierarchical protections

To show how emancipation extends critique, I propose to look more closely at two of the movements mentioned above: namely, feminism and anti-imperialism. I will show that each of these movements’ claims explodes Polanyi’s double movement by disclosing a different way in which social protections can be oppressive. To anticipate the argument: I will show, first, that feminist claims unmask the oppressive character of social protections that are premised on status hierarchies; and second, that anti-imperialist claims expose the oppressive character of social protections that have been gerrymandered to exclude some relevant actors. The result will be a concrete historical brief for the triple movement.

Consider, first, that the social and political arrangements that embed markets can be oppressive in virtue of being hierarchical. In such cases, they entrench status differentials that deny some who are included in principle as members of society the social preconditions for full participation. The classic example is gender hierarchy, which assigns women a lesser status, often akin to that of a male child, and thereby prevents them from participating fully, on a par with men, in social interaction. But one could also cite caste hierarchies, including those premised on racialist ideologies. In all such cases, social protections work to the advantage of those at top of the status hierarchy, affording lesser (if any) benefit to those at the bottom. What they protect, accordingly, is less society per se than social hierarchy. No wonder, then, that feminist, anti-racist, and anti-caste movements have mobilized against such hierarchies, rejecting the protections they purport to offer. Insisting on full participation in society, they have sought to dismantle arrangements that entrench their subordination.

The feminist critique of hierarchical protection runs through every stage of Polanyi’s history, although it is never mentioned by him. During the mercantilist era, feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft criticized the traditional social arrangements that embedded markets. Condemning the gender hierarchies entrenched in family, religion, law, and social custom, they demanded such fundamental prerequisites of non-domination as an independent legal personality, religious freedom, education, the right to refuse sex, rights of custody in their children, and the right to speak in public and to vote. During the period of laisser-faire, feminists demanded equal access to the market. Exposing the latter’s instrumentalization of sexist norms, they opposed protections that denied them the right to own property, sign contracts, control wages, practice professions, work the same hours and receive the same pay as men, all prerequisites of non-domination. During the post WWII era, “second-wave” feminists targeted the “public patriarchy” instituted by welfare states. Condemning social protections premised on “the family wage,” they demanded equal pay for work of comparable worth, parity for caregiving and wage-earning in social entitlements, and an end to the gender division of labor, both paid and unpaid. In each of these epochs, feminists raised claims for emancipation, aimed at dismantling hierarchical protections. At some moments, they targeted traditional community structures that embedded markets; at others, they aimed their fire at the forces that were disembedding markets; at still others, their principal foes were those who were re-embedding markets.

Thus, feminist claims did not align consistently with either pole of Polanyi’s double movement. On the contrary, their struggles for emancipation constituted a third prong of social movement, which cut across the other two. What Polanyi called a double movement was actually a triple movement.
7. Emancipation from misframed protections

The social and political arrangements that embed markets can also be oppressive in a second way: in virtue of being misframed. “Misframing” is a neologism I have coined for mismatches of scale–in this case between the scale at which markets are embedded, which is usually national, and that at which they expose people to danger, which is often transnational (Fraser 2005). The oppression of misframing arises when protective arrangements externalize the negative effects of markets onto “outsiders,” wrongly excluding some of those exposed, while saddling them with the costs of protecting others.

The clearest examples are colonialism and its neo-imperial successor regimes. Historically, the arrangements that protected nascent European industries had as their flip side the colonial subjugation of non-Europeans. Even today, moreover, social welfare provision in Europe and North America is largely financed by economic domination of the Global South by means of debt and unequal exchange. In both cases, the arrangements that embed markets serve the citizens of the metropolitan powers at the expense of peripheral subjects. The latter’s exploitation subsidizes the former’s protection.

Misframing differs from hierarchy as a mode of domination. Whereas the latter denies parity to internal subordinates, the former constitutes as external “others” some whose labor is essential to society–for example, colonial subjects, undocumented workers, and other non-citizens. Thus, while hierarchical protections deny full membership to some who are recognized as belonging to society, misframed protections deny the status of membership to some on whose activities society relies.

Polanyi himself laid the basis for the critique of misframed protections, although he did not articulate it explicitly. In The Great Transformation, he observed first, that political states are necessary prerequisites for successful social protection, and second, that they are unevenly available in the modern world. He writes:

If the organized states of Europe could protect themselves against the backwash of international free trade, the politically unorganized colonial peoples could not…The protection which the white man could easily secure for himself through the sovereign status of his communities was out of reach of the colored man as long as he lacked the prerequisite, political government. (183)

What exactly had caused the “colored man’s” “lack”? At the height of what they called “laisser-faire,” European powers used their colonies both as dedicated sources of raw materials and cheap foodstuffs and also as protected outlets for their manufactured goods. Thus, colonialism served to protect European industry and to cushion European peoples from the harshest effects of unregulated capitalism, while depriving colonized peoples of the means of protection.

It seemed to follow that colonized peoples would gain protection by achieving independence and acquiring states of their own. But even after decolonization that goal proved elusive. The reason has to do with another Polanyian insight: the regulatory capacities of states depend importantly on international arrangements. Observing that the gold standard/free trade regime of the early 20th century had prevented European states from adopting protective policies, like full employment or deficit spending, that depend on control of the money supply, Polanyi concluded that the post-World War II international regime should be designed in such a way as to permit, indeed to facilitate, protective policies at the national level. What he did not anticipate, however, was that the “Embedded Liberalism” (Ruggie 1982) established after the War would serve some states better than others. In that period, when imperialism assumed the “non-political” form of unequal exchange between newly independent ex-colonies and their erstwhile masters, the latter continued to finance their domestic welfare systems on the backs of the former. The disparity was exacerbated in the neoliberal era, moreover, by the policy of “structural adjustment,” as international agencies like the IMF used the weapon of debt to further undercut the protective capacities of postcolonial states, compelling them to divest their assets, open their markets, and slash social spending. Historically, therefore, international arrangements have entrenched disparities in the capacities of states to protect their populations from the vagaries of international markets. They have permitted the domestic re-embedding of markets by the states of the core, but not by those of the periphery.

No wonder, then, that anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements mobilized against misframed protections. In each historical era, they raised claims for emancipation, which cannot be fitted into Polanyi’s schema. Prior to independence, they sought national liberation, whether by negotiated transition or armed insurrection. After independence, they challenged the governance structures of the global economy, such as the WTO and the IMF. At some moments, anti-imperialists protested the forcible disembedding of their own local markets from their own pre-colonial societies. At others, they opposed the re-embedding of European markets at their expense. Like the claims of feminists, then, the claims of anti-imperialists did not align consistently with either prong of Polanyi’s double movement. In their case, too, struggles for emancipation constituted a distinct third force. Here, too, accordingly, what Polanyi called a double movement is better grasped as a triple movement, encompassing marketization, social protection, and emancipation.
8. 21st century capitalist crisis in the light of the triple movement

The previous discussion has established two points. We have seen, first, thanks to feminists and anti-imperialists, that the social arrangements that re-embed markets can be seriously flawed. Even in democratic welfare states, social protections can be oppressive insofar as they are hierarchical and/or misframed. From this it follows, and this is my second point, that neither the great transformation described by Polanyi, nor the one we are living through now, can be adequately understood by the figure of the double movement. In reducing the logic of crisis to a two-sided conflict between marketization and social protection, that figure not only occults projects of emancipation but also distorts our understanding of the two projects it purports to clarify. In fact, neither marketization nor social protection can be adequately understood without factoring in struggles for emancipation. I want to conclude by spelling out what is to be gained by transforming Polanyi’s double movement into a triple movement.

The triple movement conceptualizes capitalist crisis as a three-sided conflict among marketization, social protection, and emancipation. In our time, each of these three orientations has committed adherents. Marketization is championed by neoliberals. Social protection commands support in various forms, some savory, some unsavory–from nationally oriented social-democrats and trade-unionists to anti-immigrant populist movements, from neotraditional religious movements to anti-globalization activists, from environmentalists to indigenous peoples. Emancipation fires the passions of various successors to the new social movements, including multiculturalists, international feminists, gay-and-lesbian liberationists, cosmopolitan democrats, human-rights activists, and proponents of global justice. It is the complex relations among these three types of projects that impresses the shape of a triple movement on the present crisis of capitalist society.

To clarify this constellation, critical theorists should treat each term of the triple movement as ambivalent. We have already seen, contra Polanyi, that social protection is often ambivalent, affording relief from the disintegrative effects of deregulation, while simultaneously entrenching domination. But the same is true of the other two terms. Deregulation of markets does indeed have the negative effects Polanyi stressed, but it can also beget positive effects to the extent that the protections it disintegrates are oppressive–as, for example, when markets are introduced into bureaucratically administered command economies or when labor markets are opened to former slaves. Nor is emancipation immune to ambivalence, as it produces not only liberation but also strains in the fabric of existing solidarities. Thus, even as it overcomes domination, emancipation may help dissolve the solidary ethical basis of social protection, thereby fostering marketization.

Seen this way, each term has both a telos of its own and a potential for ambivalence that unfolds through its interaction with the other two terms. None of the three can be adequately grasped in isolation from the others. Nor can the social field be adequately grasped by focusing on only two terms. It is only when all three are considered together that we begin to get an adequate view of capitalist crisis.

Here, then, is the core premise of the triple movement: the relation between any two sides of the three-sided conflict must be mediated by the third. Thus, as I have argued here, the conflict between marketization and social protection must be mediated by emancipation. Equally, however, conflicts between protection and emancipation must be mediated by marketization. Thus, the critique I have made of Polanyi can also be turned against the adherents of emancipation. If he neglected the impact of struggles for emancipation on conflicts between marketization and social protection, they have neglected the impact of marketizing projects on conflicts between social protection and emancipation. (Fraser 2009)

As we saw, feminists, anti-imperialists, multiculturalists, and New Leftist have forcefully challenged oppressive protections in the postwar era. In each case, the movement disclosed a type of oppression and raised a corresponding claim for emancipation. In each case, too, however, the movement’s claims for emancipation were ambivalent–they could line up in principle either with marketization or with social protection. In the first case, where emancipation aligned with marketization, it would serve to erode not just the oppressive dimension, but the solidary basis of social protection simpliciter. In the second case, where emancipation aligned with social protection, it would serve not to erode, but rather to transform, the ethical substance undergirding protection.

As a matter of fact, all four movements encompassed both orientations. In each case, liberal currents gravitated in the direction of marketization, while socialist and social-democratic currents were more likely to align with forces for social protection. Arguably, however, emancipation’s ambivalence has been resolved in recent years in favor of marketization. Insufficiently attuned to the rise of neoliberalism, the hegemonic currents of emancipatory struggle have formed a “dangerous liaison” with marketization (Eisenstein 2005). In the view of some observers, they have supplied the “new spirit” or charismatic rationale for a new mode of capital accumulation, “flexible,” postfordist, transnational (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005; Fraser 2009). At the very least, the emancipatory critique of oppressive protection has converged with the neoliberal critique of protection per se. In the conflict zone of triple movement, emancipation has joined forces with marketization to double-team social protection.

The point suggests a rewriting of Polanyi’s project. By theorizing the double movement, he portrayed the conflicts of his time as an epochal battle for the soul of the market: Will nature, labor and money be stripped of all ethical meaning, sliced, diced and traded like widgets, and to hell with the consequences? Or will markets in those fundamental bases of human society be subject to ethically and morally informed political regulation? That battle remains as pressing as ever in the 21st century. But the triple movement casts it in a sharper light, as crosscut by two other major battles of epochal significance. One is a battle for the soul of social protection. Will the arrangements that re-embed markets in the post-neoliberal era be hierarchical or egalitarian, misframed or well-framed, difference-hostile or difference-friendly, bureaucratic or participatory? The other crosscutting epochal battle is for the soul of emancipation. Will the emancipatory struggles of the 21st century serve to advance the disembedding and deregulation of markets? Or will they serve to democratize social protections and to make them more just?

These questions suggest a project for those of us who remain committed to emancipation. We might resolve to break off our dangerous liaison with marketization and forge a principled new alliance with social protection. In thereby realigning the poles of the triple movement, we could integrate our longstanding interest in non-domination with legitimate interests in solidarity and social security, without neglecting the importance of negative liberty. Embracing a broader understanding of social justice, such a project would serve at once to honor Polanyi’s insights and remedy his blindspots.


Boltanski, Luc and Eve Chiapello. 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism, tr. Geoffrey Elliott (London: Verso Books).

Eisenstein, Hester. 2005. “A Dangerous Liaison? Feminism and Corporate Globalization,” Science and Society 69(3): 487-518
Fraser, Nancy. 1989. "Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-Feminist Critical Theory of Late-Capitalist Political Culture," in Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (University of Minnesota Press and Polity Press).
Fraser, Nancy. 1991. "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy," in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (M.I.T. Press) pp. 109-142.
Fraser, Nancy. 2003. “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition and Participation,” in Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, trans. Joel Golb, James Ingram, and Christiane Wilke (London: Verso).
Fraser, Nancy. 2005. “Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World,” New Left Review 36: 69-88.
Fraser, Nancy. 2009. “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review 56: 97-117.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1848. The Communist Manifesto.
Polanyi, Karl. 1944 (2001). The Great Transformation, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon).
Ruggie, John G. 1982. "International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order," International Organization 36(2): 379-415.

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