The debates around post-growth transitions to just socio-ecological futures – while undoubtedly variegated – all emphasize that such a transition will involve a fundamental change in the way we organize economic relations and processes. At a first glance, this implies both a nominal and a structural, change with corresponding shifts in production, labor and consumption patterns. Whereas nominal change is understood as a reduction in the volume of material and energy throughput, structural change is a shift in the relative importance of economic sectors. At the same time, it also implies reorienting economic relations and processes towards other objectives than growth with different motivations.

Care and carework have gained heightened attention within this context: emphasis is put on care labor and care-centering of communities, understood not only as caring between humans, but also between humans and the non-human environment. In the words of Kallis, Demaria and D’Alisa, “the degrowth imaginary centres around the reproductive economy of care”[1] A similar emphasis on care and broader reproductive activities is found within other central debates of the degrowth proposal, such as those on conviviality, worksharing, commons, etc.

Recognition is not enough

Such focus on care and carework is crucial, especially in broadening the existing notions of labor and production and recognizing that reproductive activities are essential forms of work that contribute to our well-being. Yet recognition, though welcome, is not enough. What is largely missing from the celebration of care as the cornerstone of the post-growth transition is how carework is to be organized in a socio-ecologically just future. This is crucial, since re-centering a society around care does not imply gender justice. Quite the contrary, carework has historically been one of the most exploitative, flexible and invisible forms of labor performed by women.

Especially at a time when the need for building alliances between degrowth and feminism is being stressed, problematizing care from a feminist perspective is imperative for the degrowth proposal. Feminist economists, among others, have for long emphasized that gender implies different constraints and opportunities in the face of socio-economic change. And a post-growth transition, envisaged to reorient both the motivation and the organization of economic processes, is one such change.

What I propose here is to approach carework from the perspective of commoning as a possible starting point for a feminist agenda for degrowth.

What is Carework?

The most straightforward (yet admittedly narrow) definition of carework is labor performed to fulfill the needs of those who cannot do so themselves, such as food provision, cleaning, health, etc. Broader understandings of carework stress that such work is often performed in tandem with and complementary to other types of (unpaid) reproductive labor and cannot be considered separate from the broader sphere of social reproduction. That is to say, carework is better seen as the more comprehensive field of paid and unpaid labor that ensures social reproduction in general.

A long tradition of feminist activism and scholarship has problematized carework, in particular its gendered performance, its high invisibility and flexibility. Carework is often performed by women as unremunerated labor under patriarchal relations. Gender norms and gendered division of labor often make it difficult for women to bargain away carework responsibilities. Even when care services are provided via the state or the market they are highly feminized; and subsidized by the substantial amount of unpaid carework that continues to be performed by women within households. On the other hand, women rarely have control over the timing, amount and the conditions of the care labor they perform. That care is predominantly seen as a part of the reproductive rather than the productive domain and the fact that it is usually unremunerated serves to codify it as non-work and renders it invisible.

Carework as Commons

Yet the field of care is not only a realm of immense value and production, but it is arguably the largest and the most fundamental commons on which all of us depend. Carework is a basic form of labor that sustains social life and enables any kind of social system to function; it is a field that all of us draw upon to survive. All of us have relied and continue to rely on care provided through families, friends, and other types of social networks and relations. In return, all of us perform carework and contribute to the sustenance and well-being of others. Relations of mutuality, sharing, and reciprocity that sustain our daily lives and social interactions (as well as economic transactions) all involve an element of care. In that sense carework is a commons: it is the most fundamental basis of social reproduction to which we all contribute and to which we all owe our existence.

Carework, just like other types of commons, has historically served to support capital accumulation. Especially when it is performed as unpaid and flexible labor, carework serves to lower the monetary cost of labor’s reproduction for capital: the cost of sustaining the laborer such as healthcare or eldercare are not shouldered by the capitalist, but rather shifted to the households. This is particularly so within the contemporary era where state-supported care services (e.g. healthcare, childcare, eldercare) are increasingly withdrawn. Seen in this way, carework commons resonate closely with ecological commons insofar as they provide unpaid goods and services that support capital accumulation.

However, what distinguishes carework most significantly from other types of commons are perhaps the egregious inequalities involved in its production (rather than its consumption). Many have discussed commons from a social justice perspective by focusing on who can access them and who can appropriate their benefits (e.g. enclosures). Yet who is involved in the production and reproduction of the commons, and what this implies in terms of social justice are questions that have received remarkably little attention. And this is arguably a more pressing issue for carework as a commons.

Commoning Care

Locating carework within the perspective of commoning offers a way to not only draw attention to the inequalities in its production, but also to complement the degrowth emphasis on care. This perspective is outlined, for example, in the works of Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, Massimo de Angelis and the broader Midnight Notes Collective on commons and commoning.[2]

These works emphasize an understanding of the commons not only as fixed entities between the market and state to include an amalgam of social relations and practices. This perspective conceptualizes commons as non-commodified modes of social reproduction, accessing resources and fulfilling social needs. As such, they include forms of relationships, networks, practices and struggles (in addition to shared forms natural and social wealth) that provide varying degrees of access to means of material and social reproduction – outside the mediation of the market.

This perspective also stresses the particular characteristics of the social practices constitutive of the commons: open to all who contribute to their reproduction; sustained and reproduced by collective and cooperative labor and regulated non-hierarchically. More specifically, then, commons are defined as spaces and processes of social reproduction that are non-mediated by the state or the market and ensure equitable access. Their reproduction and production take place under collective labor, they provide equal access to means of (re)production and they are marked by egalitarian forms of decision-making.

By organizing carework in a way that is not mediated by market or state, commoning care implies a range of practices that provide various degrees of autonomy from both. It involves performing care labor – whose benefits are to be received and shared by all – collectively and cooperatively. Perhaps most importantly, commoning care would mean organizing carework in a non-patriarchal, egalitarian and democratic way. In this sense, the commoning perspective does not only locate care within collective-cooperative production and use, but highlights the fundamental gender dimension implicated especially in carework.

Existing practices of commoning care can be found in radical childcare cooperatives, neighborhood care collectives, and community-based care provision. One notable example within this context is the Regeneración Childcare Collective in New York City. Regeneración aims to link household laborers, radical parents and immigrant and queer families active in social struggles. It was originally founded to provide care services to low-income queer and minority parents so that they could participate in social struggles. Today, Regeneración collaborates with other independent childcare collectives and cooperatives to foster relations of collective self-management and mutual empowerment across care workers and radical parents, especially within the field of care.

Feminism Here and Now

In their piece on the commons, De Angelis and Harvie write  “it is difficult today to conceive emancipation from capital – and achieving new solutions to the demand of buen vivir, social and ecological justice – without at the same time organising on the terrain of commons, the non-commodified systems of social production.”[3] This resonates closely with the centrality of both care and the commons within the degrowth debates. Yet, romanticizing care (and reproductive activities in general) can also serve to mask the gender injustices implicated within it. It is this junction of feminism and degrowth that calls for more thinking and action; something commoning care can be part of.

On the other hand, perhaps the most important point illuminated by the experience of Regeneración is that commoning care can effectively support and strengthen struggles in other fields, including those for degrowth. In that sense, commoning care is not only a vision for a post-growth future, but a necessity to be organized here and now in order to realize potential paths towards that future.
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References:

[1]D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., & Kallis, G. (2014). Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Routledge.

[2] De Angelis, M. (2004). Separating the doing and the deed: Capital and the continuous character of enclosures. Historical Materialism, 12 (2): 57-87; Federici, S. and G. Caffentzis (2014). Commons against and beyond capitalism. Community Development Journal, 49 (1), 92-106; Midnight Notes Collective (1990). The New Enclosures, New York: Autonomedia

[3] De Angelis, M. and Harvie, D. (2014). ‘The Commons’. In Parker, M., Cheney, G., V. Fournier and Land, C. (eds) The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization, London: Routledge: 280-294.

 

 

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