The Language and Politics of Care

We reproduce a contribution to a recent session of Brent Transformed from Lynne Segal

It can be hard to discuss care and the politics of care, calmly, with everything nowadays so catastrophic! It’s been so moving, but so chilling, for me to have just listened to shocking stories of carers’ ‘in-work poverty’. It really is truly despicable that those saving lives are themselves being destroyed. Yet, bad as things are right now, there is nothing new about this crisis of care, as the care workers describing their current conditions can tell us.

We may pay some lip-service nowadays, or have done some hand clapping, expressing how we value carers and other essential workers. But this completely disavows the reality. For we’ve been facing a crisis of care for a very long time, and done nothing about it, well before this pandemic – which, by the way was predicted: all predictions ignored. So, I’m one of the authors of The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (Verso), which began addressing this widespread crisis of care years ago.

Our current obvious failures to address the devastating situation we’re now in highlight both just how crucial care is for our lives, and also, just how uncaring our society has become. For example, the UK has had over four time the number of Covid deaths, compared with Germany, with a slightly larger population. Increasingly over the last four decades, we’ve seen Beveridge’s post-war welfare promises turned on their head: a lack of care operating at every level – from cradle to grave, culminating in the calamity of social care, especially for the disabled and elderly, which has been mounting for years.

We know that public care provision has become increasingly inaccessible, with services largely dismantled and outsourced to corporate commodity chains. And it is this privatized care that often creates the intolerable conditions for care workers: insecure, underpaid, zero hours contracts, curtailing the continuity of social and nursing care. It was all movingly captured in Ken Loach’s last film, Sorry We Missed You, and evident in carers’ strikes today, especially those supported by the United Voices of the World.

So, we see massive profits being made from outsourced ‘care’, yet the resulting provision often mocks the very name of care, with little security for either the cared-for or the carers. When profits can’t be made, care homes close down, leaving poorer parts of the county without any. You’ll all know the calamities this can create. ‘Neglect by design’ is often the result.

This structural neglect comes directly from the shrinking and out-sourcing of the welfare state over the past four decades, but above all since George Osborne’s savage austerity cuts after 2010. We see the appalling results everywhere: in the 2,000 plus food banks; homelessness; huge stress in workplaces and homes alike; soaring depression. Meanwhile, NHS cuts and partial privatisation and the removal of nursing bursaries created deficits across the care sector – with 17,000 hospital beds lost and a shortfall of 100,000 NHS staff over the past decade. As Richard Hawkins, editor of The Lancet notes, Britain was already ‘the sick man’ of Europe.

So, this is why we say in our Manifesto that the main crisis of capitalism today is, above all, a crisis of care. However, in The Care Manifesto we also point to the need for a more capacious notion and language of care. Care is not only the ‘hands-on’ care of directly looking after the physical and emotional needs of others, crucial as that is. It is also caring for, and caring about all that is necessary to human, and non-human, flourishing. The carelessness we see towards people’s needs across the life-span, connects with our lack of concern for others near and far. It connects with the callous lack of concern for the plight of refugees and rising xenophobia, as well as the continuing refusal to deal adequately with climate change.

We also know that caring has been undervalued, both historically and still today, because it is seen as women’s work, traditionally unpaid, and falsely seen as unproductive. So, caring has always been gendered. Yet, in today’s world, where women and men alike are working long hours in paid jobs, we see a huge care deficit in richer countries. This is met by a whole global care chain of predominantly poor, immigrant and non-white women who perform much of our caring work. Thus, racism combines with gender & global inequality to further devalue caring.

Care work is also undervalued, and indeed often repudiated, because of widespread contempt and devaluation of so-called ‘dependency.’ Symbolic Manhood has always been seen as the antithesis of dependency. And the last four decades of neoliberal exaltation of individual resilience, autonomy and productivity have actually deepened the disavowal of human fragility and dependence. Ideal citizens today, male or female, must be self-sufficient and entrepreneurial. The pathologizing of dependency helped to justify the dismantling of welfare benefits and resources, begun here under Margaret Thatcher.

What we need instead is to recognise our interdependence, throughout our lives: our shared vulnerabilities and our ever-greater global dependence. And we are never separate from all the diverse infrastructures of care supporting us, including transport, education, everything that enables us to flourish in the world.

Thus, rebuilding care is also about rebuilding our welfare and community resources, from the bottom up. Adequate care can’t be separated from enriching the neighbourhoods we inhabit.  Above all, this means shared public resources for all: reinstating the importance of publiclibraries, schools and parks, and extending our capacities to share in new ways: from tool libraries to public broadband.

The new municipalism – like Preston’s reinvigoration of local organisations and facilitation of co-operatives – is exemplary here, as are the successful campaigns for ‘insourcing’ by local councils. It involves supporting all forms of mutual aid, enabling us to connect and support each other in our complex needs and mutual dependency. This would enable building people’s ability to participate in the world, giving them a significant stake in the care they give and receive, and extending local democracy.

 So in this way our manifesto sketches out what a world organised around care would look like, and at all levels. People can enjoy caring, difficult as that work can be, but this depends upon us having adequate time, space and resources for doing it. This is why care logics tend to be the very opposite of market logics, which are geared to competition and profits. So, placing care front and centre of our politics would clearly means de-gendering and revaluing care, but also expanding the notion of what we mean by care.

It would also necessitate shorter paid working time, as many campaigns in progress now recognise, and as is now being pioneered in Scotland. This can enable everyone to share in the joys and challenges of caring work, on which we all depend, once such work is supported by a range of flexible, well-funded public resources. The truth is, we all need both to give and to receive care to sustain a sense of our common humanity, and to help us to confront our shared fears of human frailty, rather than project them onto those we label as ‘dependent’ – the very seedbed for the Right.

Lynne Segal is the author of several books, including her latest, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, published by Verso. She is also a member of the Care Collective and one of the authors of The Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, published by Verso.

Image: In an unprecedented campaign and historic victory, 1,200 cleaners, caterers, and porters were made direct employees of Imperial College NHS Trust after one of the longest NHS strikes in history. Source:

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