What matters in life? There seems to be a consensus amongst the social elite, whether on the right or left, when it comes to this question. It is assumed that the real aim of life is to make yourself in the market. What is considered important morally is that nobody be disadvantaged by factors outside their control, such as their class, race or sex, when it comes to workforce participation.
At one level the left criticises the free market. But at a deeper level they see the ultimate aim in life in terms of participation in the very same market.
I was interested, and a little surprised, to see a feminist in The Guardian make a similar point. Nancy Fraser begins by arguing that feminism had two possible futures:
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that the movement for women's liberation pointed simultaneously to two different possible futures. In a first scenario, it prefigured a world in which gender emancipation went hand in hand with participatory democracy and social solidarity; in a second, it promised a new form of liberalism, able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, increased choice, and meritocratic advancement. Second-wave feminism was in this sense ambivalent. Compatible with either of two different visions of society, it was susceptible to two different historical elaborations.
As I see it, feminism's ambivalence has been resolved in recent years in favour of the second, liberal-individualist scenario – but not because we were passive victims of neoliberal seductions. On the contrary, we ourselves contributed three important ideas to this development.
Personally I just don't see how feminism could ever have contributed to social solidarity. Any society in which men and women are viewed as hostile competing classes is not going to enjoy a high level of any kind of solidarity.
But she is right that the dominant strain within feminism is a liberal one that promotes individual autonomy (for women, not for men). And the ideal of maximising individual autonomy does encourage the idea that the goal in life is to "make yourself" within the market. What is it that we get to choose as atomised individuals? We get to choose our careers, our travel destinations, our entertainments and hobbies. Of these, careers carry the most weight, so middle-class liberals will tend to see careers as the means by which we best fulfil our autonomous selves.
Nancy Fraser is one left-wing feminist who doesn't want feminism to have this end point.
She even admits that feminists destroyed some of the barriers to the reach of the market when they attacked the ideal of a living wage for men:
One contribution was our critique of the "family wage": the ideal of a male breadwinner-female homemaker family...As women have poured into labour markets around the globe, state-organised capitalism's ideal of the family wage is being replaced by the newer, more modern norm – apparently sanctioned by feminism – of the two-earner family.
Never mind that the reality that underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift – now often a triple or quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households. Neoliberalism turns a sow's ear into a silk purse by elaborating a narrative of female empowerment. Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women's emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation.
Nancy Fraser is not a traditionalist but she does want to shift away from the idea that participation in the market is what makes a life:
First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including – but not only – carework.
The question is what alternative you put forward. Nancy Fraser seems to think you achieve a "solidary" society merely by rejecting individualistic competition within the market. But solidarity is not just a question of uniting to defend conditions and pay at work - that is still an economistic view of society.
One step forward is not to see people as abstracted and atomised individuals, but to accept that people are defined in part through their social relationships. We are not abstracted individuals, but men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and we are members of nations, ethnies, churches and local communities. This is what brings us into close and loyal relationships with each other; these are natural forms of solidarity that are not defined by the market.