The pervasiveness of carelessness
As carelessness takes hold in so many domains of life, and as community ties are profoundly weakened, the family is often encouraged to step in as society’s preferred infrastructure of care.
As part of our end of year sale, we are posting excerpts from some of our new titles. In this excerpt from The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence, the Care Collective looks at why we need to move away from the nuclear family as the assumed basic unit of care and how to envision a society where care is prioritized.
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Tragically, this deliberate rolling back of public welfare provision and resources, replaced by global corporate commodity chains, has generated profoundly unhealthy community contexts for care. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social care sector itself. The corporate seizure of care homes from the public sector – a process enabled and imposed by government policies – has meant that the people being ‘cared for’ in their own communities are often neglected. The capacities of those employed to provide care are severely diminished through ongoing exploitation, understaffing, poor pay, time constraints, inadequate or non-existent job security and a lack of training and support.7
Moreover, the loss of smaller and local providers, which were often firmly embedded in the community they served, further contributes to the unravelling of community ties. The outsourcing of ‘hands-on’ care provision is, however, just one of the ways in which neoliberalism evacuates possibilities for maintaining community care. At the same time, we have also witnessed a massive contraction of public space, as corporations and private-sector actors have bought up and then privatised spaces that were once commonly owned and used by the people in the community. After the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986, for example, the large and handsome municipal County Hall and its surroundings, on the South Bank of the Thames, were sold off to a Japanese entertainment company.8
The decimation of public spaces renders a sense of communal life increasingly difficult. There are fewer places for people to congregate, whether for relaxation and enjoyment, or to discuss issues of common concern or participate in collaborative projects. This heightens the competitive individualism that so often leads to loneliness and isolation, while having devastating repercussions for our ability to participate in democratic decision-making.
Fewer community resources, a culture that places profit over people, and a social and political landscape that incites us to focus on our individual selves has meant that cultivating community ties, which enhance democracy, has become ever harder. Such a care-less world creates fertile conditions for the growth of notoriously uncaring communities that base their sense of shared identity on exclusion and hatred – misogynist incel and white nationalist groups being paradigmatic examples. Moreover, careless communities focus on investing in policing and surveillance rather than in social provisions to promote human flourishing. And as carelessness takes hold in so many domains of life, and as community ties are profoundly weakened, the family is often encouraged to step in as society’s preferred infrastructure of care.
The traditional nuclear family still provides the prototype for care and for contemporary notions of kinship, all stemming from the mythic ramifications of the first ‘maternal bond’. This remains true even as queer people have been increasingly incorporated into the mainstream – on the condition that they reproduce the traditional nuclear-family model. Our circles of care have not broadened out but have, in fact, become painfully narrow.
These caring arrangements are unreliable and unjust. The nuclear family cannot be the assumed basic unit of care, nor can market outsourcing be the solution to the gender inequality of current care expectations or practices. In both cases, after all, women end up doing the lion’s share of both unpaid and paid care work (two-thirds of paid and three-quarters of unpaid care work globally). Why should women have to do all this care work? And what if you don’t have a family that can support you – what if your family has rejected you, or you have rejected them? What if you cannot afford to pay for privatised care services? At best, the consequences of this regime of care have often led to the neglect and isolation of those most in need of care, and at worst to needless sickness and death. The neoliberal insistence on only taking care of yourself and your closest kin also leads to a paranoid form of ‘care for one’s own’ that has become one of the launch pads for the recent rise of hard-right populism across the globe. And this brings us full circle – from the global lack of care to the reliance on the traditional family – underscoring how the different scales we outline here are all intimately and inextricably related.
As we live through the ascendancy of far-right populism and the uncertainty of a post-pandemic world, the idea of care has been so diminished that it tends to mean care exclusively for and about ‘people like us’. In what is a truly horrifying situation, the populist state actually strengthens itself the more it produces spectacles of indifference to the ‘different’. Only a minority of us, apparently, feel upset when migrant infants are ripped away from their families; or when entire ecosystems burn to the ground as a result of climate change, or, as in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, are deliberately destroyed to make way for neoliberal capitalist ventures. One of the images that has come to define Trump’s America is of US First Lady Melania Trump visiting a shelter that housed refugee children separated from their families, wearing a jacket with the words ‘I Really Don’t Care. Do U?’ scrawled in big white letters. ‘Really not caring’ is presented by the right as a form of ‘realism’; strong evidence of what we term the banality of carelessness. It also shows how crucial the question of dependency, and interdependency, is for our societies and our lives, at every single level, and the multiple destructions caused when these interdependencies are denied.
How do we even begin to address the pervasiveness of carelessness? We suggest that we can do so by building on a wealth of examples of what we call ‘care-in-practice’, from the radical past to the recent present, when care has come to prominence as a vital force during the coronavirus emergency. In what follows, we offer a progressive vision of a world that takes the idea of care as its organising principle seriously, an idea that has been repudiated and disavowed for too long. This vision advances a model of ‘universal care’: the ideal of a society in which care is placed front and centre on every scale of life. Universal care means that care – in all its various manifestations – is our priority not only in the domestic sphere but in all spheres: from our kinship groups and communities to our states and planet. Prioritising and working towards a sense of universal care – and making this common sense – is necessary for the cultivation of a caring politics, fulfilling lives, and a sustainable world.
Achieving this vision of universal care is of course as challenging as it is pressing. It will involve avowing our mutual interdependencies and embracing the ubiquitous ambivalences at the heart of care and caregiving. It will mean ensuring that care is distributed in an egalitarian way – neither assumed to be unproductive and primarily women’s work by nature, nor, when paid, carried out mostly by women who are poor, immigrant, or of colour. The goal is to ensure that the whole of society shares care’s multiple joys and burdens. Across different scales of life, this vision translates into reimagining the limits of familial care to encompass more expansive or ‘promiscuous’ models of kinship; reclaiming forms of genuinely collective and communal life; adopting alternatives to capitalist markets and resisting the marketisation of care and care infrastructures; restoring, invigorating and radically deepening our welfare states; and, finally, mobilising and cultivating radical cosmopolitan conviviality, porous borders and Green New Deals at the transnational level.