Why we need to read The Care Manifesto

Labour Hub interviewed the Care Collective: Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler, Catherine Rottenberg and Lynne Segal, the authors of The Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, published by Verso, about some ideas in the book

Q: The book argues that free market capitalism has pushed aside ideas of social and community welfare in favour of “individualised notions of resilience, wellness and self-improvement”.  As a result, to depend on care has been pathologised as a weakness and caregiving has been further stereotyped as ‘feminine’ and women’s work. How do these attitudes manifest themselves today?

A: It’s certainly true that this crisis of care has been with us for a long time, but over the last decade it has greatly escalated.  Even before Covid-19 hit, care services had already been slashed and priced out of reach for many of the elderly and disabled, whilst hospitals were routinely overwhelmed and in crisis. Homelessness had been on the rise for years, and increasing numbers of schools had begun dealing with pupil hunger. Meanwhile, multinational corporations had been making huge profits out of financialising and overleveraging care homes, whilst work in the care sector became part of the corporate gig economy, making precarious workers not only more common but also hugely overstretched, vulnerable and thus less able to care.

At the same time, ideas of social welfare and community had been pushed aside for individualised notions of resilience, wellness and self-improvement. We see this particularly in the ballooning ‘self-care’ industry, which relegate care to something we are supposed to buy for ourselves on an individual basis.

All of this means that today, there are way too many people lacking either the time, or the resources to care for others adequately, even within their own families. The crisis is particularly dire among the elderly, with 1.4 million older people with unmet care needs.

But what we see is that everywhere the least well off, especially those with dependents in need of care, have been suffering. And it is usually women who are somehow expected to cope with the escalating need – women who are most often themselves in waged work nowadays. As we say in the Manifesto, the devaluation of care is linked to  care and caretaking’s historic association with women, women’s work and its perceived “non-productive” nature.

Relatedly, in the UK, there is a lot of contempt for any perceived manifestation of ‘dependency’.  Of course, part of the contempt for so-called ‘dependency’ has to do with the lionization of autonomy and independence in the Global North, attributes that have been gendered ‘male’. Notions of unhindered male autonomy and independence remain symbolic of ‘manhood’, defined primarily through its negation of the ‘soft’, caring and dependent world of domesticity.

So dependency, like care – the two are obviously related – has also historically been associated with women.  It is not particularly surprising, then, that paid care work – and caring for children and the elderly most specifically – is performed predominantly by women (and often immigrant and women of colour) and is grossly underpaid.  And we know that unpaid care work is also overwhelmingly performed by women.

This contempt for dependency in the UK especially targets anyone in need of any kind state support, a stigma Thatcher encouraged back in the 1980s. It is a framing that has remained ever since, with much mainstream media vilification of those on ‘benefits’, and a complete disavowal of the ways in which, in one way and another, we are all dependent, both on each other, and on our basic social infrastructures supporting our general welfare, all our lives.

So, we show how this issue of ‘dependency’ and ‘autonomy’ are actually just two sides of the same coin.

Q: The authors argue that the solution lies in “multiplying our circles of care… by expanding our notion of kinship,” leading to a de-traditionalising of society. Would you like to elaborate on that?

A: The notion of care that we develop in the manifesto is both capacious and promiscuous.

Indeed, we make a case for “promiscuous care”, which is to say care needs to be rethought in ways that are nonnormative and capable of expansion across difference and distance.

We build on historical examples of alternative care, giving practices such as the radical model of care that emerged during the 1970s AIDS crisis by groups such as ACT UP, Gay Men Fighting AIDS, and the Terrence Higgins trust.

We insist that with adequate resources, time and labour, people can feel secure enough to care for, about and with strangers as if they were kin. Indeed, our main claim about promiscuous care is that it is only by proliferating our circles of care—in the first instance by expanding our notion of kinship—that we can achieve the psychic infrastructures necessary for building a caring society. So, promiscuous care is a concept that challenges traditional understandings of intimacy and heteronormative family, and one that recognises that we all have the capacity to care—not just mothers, and not just women—and that all our lives are radically improved when we care and are cared for, and when we care together.

Q: The book identifies four important things that can help develop caring communities – one, mutual aid, which for example has flourished during the pandemic, two. the extension of public space, such as community festivals and green spaces which foster interconnection – but also cooperative housing, youth clubs, public hospitals, schools and nurseries, three, progressive government and four, local democracy. These last three are all under attack, so do you see any positive prospects for these, looking forward?

A: You are totally right that all these are under attack and as we all know they have been undermined for quite some time. Authors such as Wendy Brown have very astutely demonstrated that neoliberalism is a political rationality that operates not only through the dissolution of all our collective resources, commons and infrastructures, but also through an evisceration of democratic structures. We are painfully reminded by the likes of Trump, Boris Johnson and Bolsonaro that the current crisis is a crisis of democracy as much as it is a crisis of care.

In rebuilding a caring world, we have to insist on radically democratising everything, not just by replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system, but also by ending the privatisation of public services and ensuring our basic social infrastructures – from local schools and communal parks, to our hospitals, schools and transnational institutions – are decommodified and are part of the collective commons.

Yet, despite all the welfare destructiveness we have seen over recent decades, hopeful examples are also popping up here and there: see for instance Spain’s radical municipalism; the numerous citizenship assemblies across Europe; or the platform co-operative movement. In our Manifesto, then, we draw on a range of past and current examples where more caring and democratic communities and imaginaries have been created, along with other manifestations — like the mutual aid groups that have sprung up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As others have said before us, despite registering despair, we must always help to create hope.  Hope is not found, or held, but made. One of the motivations for writing the Manifesto was to do this and to outline a vision of what an alternative world with care at the centre could look like.  We are too used to dystopic visions of the future, and we wanted to imagine a progressive and utopian one.  As Naomi Klein has underscored, saying ‘No’ is not enough anymore: we need to show what other worlds are possible. While the prospects for creating a caring world do not of course look great at the moment, this is all the more reason to keep struggling for a world in which care is front or centre. The stakes have never been higher.

Q: The book is critical of the post-war welfare state, for its top-down paternalism and proposes a care infrastructure that cultivates personal autonomy while strengthening social solidarity. What might this look like in practice?

Well, you have to read the Manifesto, since we have sketched out what a state would look like in practice!  But here we will just say that it is clear to everyone that very few people want to return to a paternalistic and bureaucratic model of the welfare state. And it is no coincidence that it is this very model that neoliberal actors always warn us against every time the ‘virtues’ of market liberalism are questioned.

But paternalistic states are not the only alternative to free markets. So we sketch out just what an alternative might look like in practice.  For instance, a caring state begins with a total transformation of our notions of belonging.  Rather than being based on ethno-cultural identity and racialised borders, belonging needs to be based on recognition of all of our mutual interdependencies. Thus a caring state is one in which the provision for all of our basic needs and a sharing infrastructure are ensured while, at the same time, participatory democracy, rather than authoritarianism, is deepened at every level. There are many good examples of participatory democracy and decision-making in practice that can be drawn on here, from the co-production of public services, to worker’s co-operatives, to participatory budgeting at a local level.

The caring state refuses the post-war welfare state’s hierarchies and sexual and ethnic division of labour, as well as all its racialised policies and practices.  This also means that public provision in the caring state does not revolve around cultivating dependences, but what disability activists call creating the possibilities for ‘strategic autonomy and independence’. This means everyone receiving what they need both to thrive and also to experience some sense of agency in the world. In other words, the state, while necessary to ensure the smooth provision of services and resources, must also be responsible for facilitating greater democratic engagement within and between communities.

If we begin to apply the principle of participatory democracy in literally every sphere of our lives, we can see how a different model of autonomy – perhaps what Joan Tronto calls “relational autonomy”, or what could also be described as interdependent autonomy – can begin to flourish everywhere. This is a very different model of personal freedom and independence from the one proposed by neoliberals: it is one based on recognising our interdependencies, and our shared vulnerabilities.

Q: At the end of the book, the authors argue that these ideas need to be applied internationally, distributing “the world’s resources not only in an environmentally sustainable fashion but also in ways that more equitably sustain populations and diminish the resentment between them to create connections across difference.” How do we go about this and what concrete positive signs are there of this?

This is a very tricky question! We are very aware that if we are to democratise our everyday lives we need, to a certain extent, some return to localism. To begin with, as Ann Petiffor argues in her case for a New Green Deal, if we are to hold global finance accountable – one of democracy’s biggest enemies – we have to bring offshore capital onshore, and increase accountability at the level of the nation state (as opposed to its borderless and largely unaccountable global arena).

But we also urgently need to build international movements and alliances, at different levels, to sustain a democratic socialist movement that can effectively confront global capital, regenerate our planetary resources and ensure the flourishing of all human and nonhuman forms of life. One example of this at present is the Progressive International, which is about to launch its first conference led by radical figures on the global stage. The Leap Organization is another. The challenge is to build upon earlier moments of radical change, even when they didn’t last, as well to fortify the diverse kinds of organizations and movements that have emerged and continue to struggle for a more caring world.

Another final thing to celebrate is that during Covid-19, care for the vulnerable has been taken seriously by large swathes of the population globally. It is true that this will likely disappear quickly—till the next crisis—but it does provide us with a moment of possibility in which arguing for a politics of care is more possible than it has been for a very long time.

The Care Manifesto is launched tonight, Thursday 24th September, 8pm, streamed live on YouTube and Facebook.