How an Expanded Conception of Capitalism Requires us to Move Political Struggles to Unexpected Spaces

Attracting a large audience, political theorist Nancy Fraser visited Stockholm a couple of days ago to present her view of a socialism for the 21st century. However, the talk was not only about socialism but also about its antagonist, capitalism, which, according to Fraser, must be subjected to a more refined analysis in order for a credible socialist alternative to be formulated. Current analyses of capitalism, Fraser argues, are inadequate as it is stuck in the Marxist notion of capitalism as an economic system. Rather, for this system to even function, it is dependent on a range of non-economic conditions. Here, the list of preconditions provided by Fraser is long; it is about the social reproduction so often emphasized by feminist theorists, including the unpaid work in the confines of the family, the exploitation of “cheap gifts” from nature such as raw material and energy, public goods provided by states, such as infrastructure, judicial protections for property rights and the access to policing measures. These very conditions of possibility for capitalism must be incorporated into an analysis of capitalism as well as in the critique against it.

As I listen to Fraser’s talk, I start to think of what the consequences of this expanded conception of capitalism has for political struggle. As I interpret her, this must mean moving political struggles to new spaces and creating new political frontiers of struggle. One precondition for capitalism, mentioned by Fraser, is infrastructure. Here, we can think of the transporting possibilities in the form of roads and railways so important for the transport of material. It can also mean the financial infrastructure needed to move money with a single push on a button. However, as I sit there, bracing myself for a tedious ride home on the subway, I realize that there is something about the very infrastructure of modern cities that provides the perfect precondition for capitalism: its ability to direct and discipline flows.

As someone not being used to live in a big city, I have become fascinated by travelling in local traffic to and from work every day. Taking the subway has taught me something about human disciplining. Although living in a metropolis, people behave in a predictable way: they stand quietly at the platform and wait for the subway, enter it and endure the often unpleasant experience of standing in a crowded car, and in the station they follow the flows to the next subway train, standing in line in long escalators. Although people sometimes walk slowly, sometimes run, the behavior is remarkably stable: you just go with the flow to your end destination where you sit down and work. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari1 would perhaps call this “the striation of space”, that is, the ordering of space so that speed can be restricted and circulation regulated. This is an important precondition for capitalism. In the words of human geographer Mekonnen Tesfahuney and political scientist Magnus Dahlstedt:

Power and control over different flows (capital, commodities, services and people), on various geographical scales, have a crucial function in capitalist economies and states. The capitalist economy requires complex and wide-ranging infrastructures of planning, coordination and execution, in the assembly, circulation and distribution of materials, commodities and capital in time-space. Accumulation would be practically impossible without such infrastructure.2

Thus, the transport system of big cities is a perfect example of what Fraser calls the preconditions for capitalism as it directs and disciplines flows, transporting people from place to place, ensuring that they can do their work as good citizens in a capitalist economy. In this way, the struggle against capitalism must move its efforts to these spaces that work as preconditions for capitalism. In the case of infrastructure, it means disrupting the way that large cities are planned to facilitate the flows that are so important for the functioning of capitalism, and imagine spaces that do not serve the interests of capital accumulation. Although a difficult task, Fraser shows that an expanded conception of capitalism, which I have tried to use as an analytical frame here, forces us to exercise our struggles on different fronts, even during the practice of the most mundane tasks in daily life.

  1. Deleuze, G & Guattari, F (2013 [1987]). A thousand plateaus. New York: Bloomsbury. []
  2. Tesfahuney, M. & Dahlstedt, M. Maze of camps: (Im)mobilities, racism and spaces of exception, (p. 179) in Holmgren Troy, M. & Wennö, E. (Ed.) (2008). Space, Haunting, Discourse. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. []
David Scott is a PhD student in Political Science at Karlstad University, Sweden. He writes his thesis on the projectification of Swedish development aid, focusing specifically on how market and management thinking permeate the construction of development projects. He also studies the political effects of projectification. He has a general interest in critical political theory, mainly from a poststructuralist perspective. David can be reached at: david.scott@kau.se. Read other articles by David.