Care: from Sector to Criterion

The term “care” can be understood in both a narrow and broad sense. In the narrow sense it is normally still perceived as a social or economic sector. The care-sector contains the indispensable but unpaid mixed activities in private households as well as underpaid activities in households and institutions, mostly in the healthcare and education systems. Today, both the un- and underpaid care activities have in common that they are still largely carried out by women, that they are linked to conventional notions of  “femininity” and that they are marginalized in influential public discourses to the point of invisibility.
Understood in a broad sense, care is a quality: a certain approach to the world that puts “life and sustaining life at the center of attention” and thus significantly differs from the currently dominant capitalist approach which is focused on efficiency, acceleration, scalability, financial incentives and monetary profit.

At least since the feminist debate on housework in the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a social movement for a re-evaluation of the care sector. Above all feminists claimed that care activities should be recognized as value-adding work, that they should be researched, made visible in the media, statistically recorded, included in the subject area of ​​economics and in national accounts, that they should be paid or better paid or otherwise appreciated in a way that a life of dignity was possible for all care workers. Often care-activists focused their efforts on tackling certain problem areas – unpaid housework, precarious working conditions in the care sector for the elderly or the sick, in daycare centers, in au pair work or care migration etc. – and from there came to a comprehensive analysis of the entire sector and its interdependence with the rest of the economy. During the corona pandemic, the care sector has gained visibility being publicly debated as “essential work” far beyond the existing feminist care-movement.

It has been known for decades that humankind, if it wants to survive, has to change course globally in the face of impending climate change, or in other words: that it has to end the destructive wear and tear of resources associated with the dominant, supposedly “economic” logic of the market. The pandemic has now revealed two things: First, that concern for one’s own life, for the life of other people and the common habitat earth must form the center of all economic activity, and second, that rapid collective behavioral changes are possible. Achieving a new normal on this side of market-driven routines is therefore not only necessary in view of climate change, it has also been proven possible. As a consequence, the approach of care, which has hitherto been externalized in favor of profit or limited to compensatory fringe areas, moves to the center of the economy: “Life and sustaining life” becomes the orientation framework for all economically active actors. So, the economy is returning to its core business, the concern for the life and survival of humanity in the fragile cosmos earth: Care is no more a compensatory sector, but becomes a criterion for the whole of the economy.

(Original text in German)


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