Talking about Care in Public

As many feminist economists have pointed out, all labor can be seen as caring labor, since … even if one builds a bridge, it’s ultimately because one cares about people who might wish to cross the river.” (David Graeber, 237)

All humans are natural beings. As we are nature we are dependent on a sound ecosystem as well as on our fellow humans: on people who cook meals for us, grow vegetables, build bridges, roads and houses, repair computers, write laws, defend our rights and so on. There are of course various grades of dependence: A baby will immediately die alone in a jungle whereas an adult woman might be able to survive for some time. A man with a broken leg is much more dependent on care than is his uninjured brother. However, these distinctions do not change the basic fact that there is no such thing as human independence in the real world. If we consider all the institutions humanity has created – states, cities, parliaments, languages, economies, frontiers, schools, hospitals etcetera – they can basically be seen as forms of organizing care. That is why it should be a no-brainer to talk about care in the public sphere as it is a universal topic affecting everyone. 

However, talking about care in public is in fact not at all easy. The main reason is that there is a second concept of care the core of which is that human societies consist of both independent and dependent or “strong” and “weak” members. In a new seemingly progressive UN-report called “Crises of Inequality. Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract” for example, you can read (101-105) that “in 2015, 2.1 billion people in the world were in need of care.” Consequently, the rest, more than 5 billion humans, must be somehow beyond needs. While David Graeber and I define care as the ultimate essence of all labor, it is defined in this report vaguely as a “society-wide sector, performed by a variety of actors” and opposed to spheres called “the state”, “the economy”, “the labor market”, “the system”, “capitalism”, “production” and other realms apparently located outside the so-called “world of care”. 

In my experience most obstacles and challenges that arise when you speak about care in public, are in one way or another linked to this dual structure in the notion of care. Above all, the deeply entrenched idea that there are “independent” or “strong” or “productive” seemingly self-sufficient individuals on top of human societies stands in the way of a realistic and future-oriented public discourse about care. 

The Strong and the Weak

The fiction of “independent” people is directly linked to a core concept of mainstream economics: the homo oeconomicus. Mainstream economics, for its part, is one of the most influential discourses in modern capitalist societies. As Larry Summers puts it, “what economists think, say, and do has profound implications for the lives of literally billions of their fellow citizens” (Puehringer/Beyer 2020, 2). Although the dis-embedded “economic man” has always been disputed, the model of a consistently rational, self-interested, well-informed, lonely, and clever decision-maker whose basic needs have been fulfilled somewhere in the dark has shaped the mindsets of generations of economists. They imagine “the economy” as an extremely important closed box (Raworth 2017, chapter 2) filled with well-balanced acts of purchase and sale – called “supply and demand” – between independent money-owners, surrounded by “the social” and “the natural” which are sometimes called “externalities” and sometimes made entirely invisible. 

All the people who have internalized this mindset do not want to understand or do not understand why care should be a universal topic affecting everybody. They imagine themselves as “strong” or desperately strive for the idealized status of so-called independence. This status seems to allow them to conceive care as something they will certainly be able to buy, if necessary, and that therefore affects people outside the box only: women, mothers, children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, refugees, people with handicaps, the paupers, the losers, in short: “the weak”.   

As the normality of dependence is conceived as an emergency, a decline, a loss or even a disappearance in this bipartite mindset, it is anxiety-provoking. Of course, “the strong” must be aware on some level that all humans have come into the world as helpless babies, that they will probably end as frail elderly and that everybody can become sick or injured at any moment of life. Although these facts are undeniable, they very well may be repressed or compulsively projected to an externalized “other”. There are certain stereotypical icons in the media that denote the repressed outside and allow “the strong” to prophylactically turn away. For example, the excessive use of the icon of “holding hands” signals to the (would-be) strong(wo)man that what is said in the attached text is none of my business. Systematically repelled by “weak” womanly icons of relatedness the economic man can avoid topics that he senses as “inferior” as they imply human dependency. He prefers to turn to (images of) robots, skyscrapers, aircrafts, and other tokens of human domination over nature. 

Path Dependence, Power Plays and State of Shock

Optimism says that more and more people nowadays are leaving behind the outdated bipartite order, accepting universal human dependence and the respective need of being cared for. Multiple threats – climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics, the alarming lack of people and structures providing care for all – will probably push humanity towards a care-centered political economy as otherwise our survival is in doubt. However, beyond the fading binary mindset there are more obstacles standing in the way of a reasonable public discourse about care: above all path dependence, power plays and a state of shock.

First, there is not only one public. The public sphere is split into different departments that all follow their own rules and paths, serve certain audiences and are afraid of losing followers: Business journals and women’s magazines, right wing, left wing, populist, religious and esoteric bubbles, political parties, trade unions and scientific communities, social media platforms, professional communities and journals, international conferences, pulp magazines etcetera. To break the rules of a box involves the danger of irritating customers and losing influence. In August 2021, for example, I wrote a letter to Sebastian Matthes, the editor-in-chief of “Handelsblatt”, one of the most important German business papers in which I had published columns for some time.[6] I proposed creating a new section called “the whole of the economy” in which all the externalized spheres could be addressed. Despite several reminders by letter and on social media, despite a long list of experts who would be able to fill the pages, Sebastian Matthes has not answered to the present day. – On the other side, many “women’s magazines” are not prepared to transform their traditional topics of fashion, cooking and decoration into a self-assertive debate about the essential economic value of un- and underpaid care-work. In traditional women’s spaces there is still a certain fear of “big business” and “the economy” that is welcomed and encouraged by those in power. Path-dependence and silo mentality still seem to prevent the urgent bubble-crossing that is necessary for leaving the beaten tracks of the binary mindset. 

Second, putting care in the center means a loss of power for those who have long-since been profiting from the established order: big business, mainstream economics, mainstream media, autocrats, the 1 percent of the ultra-rich. This, in turn, implies that power plays must be faced as part of the necessary transformation. The oil, coal, weapons and financial industry, big tech and big pharma, generals and bosses will not meekly quit their superior positions but fight with all their power, money and influence to keep them. This means that people who talk about care as a universal issue in public will be confronted with tricks such as derision, trivialization, catch questions, non-response, persistent silence, fake expertise, denial, divide et impera, sexist and racist stereotyping, cooptation, greenwashing and other pseudo-solutions and more. By not yet converging to become a coherent movement, the many initiatives for a care-centered political economy are still prone to being overwhelmed by powerful resistance. To become a consistent movement is therefore an important instrument to overcome powerplay.

Third, there is still a widespread ignorance about the quantity and relevance of externalized realities that are incorporated and exploited by the so-called economy. To learn, for example, that more than 40 percent of essential work worldwide is done for free or that seemingly insignificant insects are indispensable for the functioning of vital ecosystems can put you in a state of shock that, at least for a certain time, makes you fall silent. To crawl out of silence, to move care from the trivialized margins to the center and help other people speak up, propose solutions and take action is the finest art of communicating care in public. 

Necessities, opportunities

Despite all the obstacles there is no way around talking about care in public in a post-binary way at this time of multiple crises. In fact, all the obstacles are indicators for the relevance of the enterprise: The more resistance you meet, the more you analyze its background and motives, the more you realize how urgent it is to talk about human dependence as universal issue in all sorts of public realms.

The bipartite, binary, dichotomic, patriarchal order is a very old and deeply entrenched structure that penetrates our (Western) languages, our culture, sciences, media, education systems, religious practices, economies, everyday lives and more. We have all learnt to distinguish between strong and weak, superior and inferior, man and woman, independent and needy, culture and nature, subject and object, public and private, although deep down everyone knows that we are all born and mortal natural human beings living on the common ground of the generous yet finite vulnerable planet Earth.  

To break the fetters of hierarchy is not easy, but one of the most urgent tasks in this time of multiple crises. Although there is still multifaceted powerful resistance against unalterable facts you are not alone. There are more and more people around who will resonate with you and join the journey to a care-full future


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