Who cares?


In the L’Oreal ad for a men’s skin care cream, TV star Patrick Dempsey is one of life’s winners. He represents neo-liberalism’s ideal type: ‘The free standing and hyper rational, unencumbered competitive individual,’ quintessentially ‘….an image of middle class maleness.’[i] He exudes sex, power and wealth. Even his stubble looks expensive. In the closing frames he briefly caresses a baby, and gazes into the camera: “Because you are worth it.” That phrase, reeking of narcissism, self obsession and entitlement in equal measure, is an emblem of our age.

While Dempsey’s out doing his guy thing, the person caring for the baby in the ad remains invisible. That too is symbolic of the neo- liberal era. Work in the marketplace became an enchanted value. Books like Better than Sex, why a whole generation got hooked on work[ii] were written. Meanwhile the shadow care economy – upon which the visible economy relies – became all but invisible.

If you follow the care trail, you will quickly arrive at a whole terrain of inequality. In the neo liberal era, the more you devolved care onto others, the more you increased your competitive edge. Inequality sharpened dramatically. Neo-liberal economics was, as J.K. Galbraith pointed out, legitimised by an unproven trickle-down theory which depended upon the “less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through onto the road for the sparrows.” With top financial traders in the United States taking home $40-50 million a year or $100,000 – more than twice the average yearly salary – per week, we can safely conclude that the horses were indeed growing plump on their oats.

Yet for those with care responsibilities, the story is very different. Here are just a few examples. In the neo-liberal US, the rates of poverty among mothers and the children they care for, are among the highest in OECD nations. In Australia, close to four million people are affected by some form of impairment. Half a million Australians are primary carers of a person with a disability – the equivalent of the population of Tasmania. They struggle in desperation to gain even the most basic government assistance. They are more likely to be poor. Nearly one third of households containing a person with a disability live on less than half the median income. In the great race of unfettered capitalism, nice guys and gals, says the feminist economist Nancy Folbre ruefully, come last. Altruism suffers what she calls the Care Penalty.

Folbre points out that Adam Smith, in his seminal work The Wealth Of Nations, waxed lyrical about economic man maximising his self interest in the marketplace. Transported to the relational world, however, homo economicus sounds more like someone with a narcissistic personality disorder.  Smith took for granted a Mrs. Smith at home providing altruistic care for all family members.

Now we want Ms Smith to be employed too. As Ann Orloff points out, there has been a paradigm shift in most Western societies that she calls ‘Farewell to Maternalism,’ away from the traditional male breadwinner/female caregiver model of the family, to the idea of ‘employment for all’ and the universal breadwinner model. The new capitalism has at its centre a trade off – more hours worked per family to service the consumption habit. Working families are locked into a work/spend/debt cycle which boosts GDP and economic growth, but often sees women stretched and strained in the process. The economic imperatives created by the new capitalism, such as the housing affordability crisis, mean that even conservative government’s attempts to tinker with family
tax or payments like the baby bonus fail in preserving the single income, male breadwinner family.

There are other factors at work. There is a demographic imperative to Ms Smith being a working mum. Most Western nations face below replacement fertility and a large cohort of ageing baby boomers, which means fewer workers supporting all dependent citizens. As The Australian[iii] noted, writing about the launch of the new Institute For Population Ageing Research, health has now nudged out retail as the nation’s largest employer.

The distinct economic and social justice challenges that an ageing population poses means that family and work debates, thus far centred on paid maternity leave and workers with small children, are likely to shift to include those with elder care responsibilities. The cost of an ageing population has policy makers reaching for their calculators- and rapidly revising old fashioned ideas about women and work. That last aspect gives us an important clue as to how to judge this new paradigm. It is more about economic interests than women’s liberation. ‘Employment for all’ reduces the welfare bill – hence all the measures to move sole parents off welfare and into work. The title of one OECD publication caught the new mood best: “Putting more women to work.”

The result, however, is Feminism Lite. While women are expected to enter the labour force, there remains the continuing assumption that they will provide or organise household and dependent care. This last expectation is crucial. It makes it sound, to me at least, more like the road to exhaustion than emancipation.

It is hardly surprising that contemporary society suffers from a care deficit. The neo liberal revolution, with its emphasis on ‘employment for all’ and competitive striving in the marketplace, occurred simultaneously with two other major social movements. The first was de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill and the severely disabled. Care in the community is a humane ideal, but it costs money, time and commitment to do properly. The second was the feminist revolution, where women began entering the workforce in ever greater numbers. On both counts, more not less government funding for support services, in the form of child or elder care, respite care and accommodation were desperately needed. And on both counts family members who were caregivers needed new labour market regulations – like parental or carer’s leave – to both work and care effectively. Yet precisely at that moment the ascendancy of neo-liberalism meant governments aimed at a contraction of state spending as a proportion of GDP and deregulation of the labour market.

We simply have not worked out the care issue. Existing ideas of delivering care represent exhausted positions. The conservative vision is nostalgic, one of female self sacrifice in the private realm, supporting men in the realm of achievement in the marketplace. Neo-liberals want women to work, but don’t want to alter the workplace to help them do so. Instead their answer is to transform care into a profitable commodity and sell it in the market. The results have been either cheap as chips ABC Learning style corporate care, or a low waged, largely female servant class for the affluent.

Can we do better? Nancy Folbre is one of a group of contemporary writers who are focussing on the justice implications of how care is organised. They provide new directions in thinking through questions of justice and responsibilities for care, and in doing so break an old stalemate over differing strategies to achieve equality within feminism. The ‘equality as sameness feminism’, which concentrates on equal opportunities in the workplace, has long been in conflict with a ‘difference’ or maternal feminism, which has concentrated on the importance of, and justice for, the work of care. This rich new seam is attentive to the best in both critiques, operationalising an ethic of care within a tough minded frame of feminist economics, such as Folbre’s The Invisible Heart; Economics and Family Values, and Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structure of Constraint.

If Folbre is the best exemplar of a practical and gritty feminist economist, Eva Kittay is perhaps the most significant among the feminist care theorists. A moral philosopher and mother of a profoundly disabled child, her book Love’s Labor was a striking intervention in feminism. It caused a whole edition of the feminist journal Hypatia to be devoted to discussing her work, with no less a figure than the famous liberal feminist Martha Nussbaum providing an introduction. Nussbaum saw immediately that Love’s Labor was a real challenge to her own ‘capabilities’ approach, developed with Amartya Sen.

Kittay takes issue with all theories of justice, including that of a progressive like John Rawls, and also with all forms of feminism which depend upon, or are informed by, such theories. Kittay movingly challenges the way Western political theory valorises the independent subject. She shows what is left out when society is supposed to be an association of equals. It masks dependencies and asymmetries that form an inevitable part of the human condition. Humans are born vulnerable, and they die vulnerable.

We may be born or become disabled, contract multiple sclerosis or cancer, become mentally ill, and grow old and frail. All of the natural and irrevocable parts of the human condition will need care. Some is temporary, like the care of children from whom adult caretakers can justly expect later reciprocity. But love’s labour will and must always include those among us who can never reciprocate, like the disabled or the chronically mentally ill. No just society will forget them. Nor can it ignore looking after those who dedicate their lives to care.

Here is where Kittay offers something novel. She invokes the idea of a societal ‘doulia’, following the Greek word doula, a caregiver who cares for the mother of a newborn baby. What Kittay suggests is that we need to install the central principle of the doulia; caring for and giving justice to the caregivers as well as the vulnerable. This development in care theory takes it beyond the exhausted position of a patriarchal conservatism, which would agree on the need to care for the vulnerable, but simply place the entire responsibility at
women’s self sacrificial feet, while averting its (male) gaze from the consequences for women. Kittay’s emphasis enables an ethic of care to remain attentive to many of the just concerns within feminism – such as the right to economic independence.

What practices and policies might constitute a just and workable doulia seems a useful starting point for progressives in thinking about alternatives to our present predicament. Any future Left project should put an ethic of care, with values of justice, fairness, interdependence, reciprocity, compassion and respect, at its very centre. To begin with, we need to dust off one of the concepts forgotten during the neo-liberal era: equality. As the global financial crisis deepened earlier this year, showing the perils of an
untrammelled free market, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s remarkable book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies almost always do better, was published. The book showed that economies bring with them whole social ecologies: unequal societies have disadvantages not just for the poor, but for every income and education level. In contrast, more equal states consistently delivered better emotional and physical health, longevity, lower infant mortality, lower rates of obesity, mental illness and drug use, better educational achievements, greater social mobility, more cohesiveness and trust, better care of the environment as well as gender equity. In unequal societies, even the carbon footprint per person is higher, while the resulting affluence brings with it another high price: rising rates of anxiety and depression.

Progressives will have to also develop innovative but practical policies, like the proposed
National Disability Insurance Scheme, to deliver greater justice to those who have disabilities, but also to those who care for them. Other policies must centre on creating family and work regimes that make possible women’s economic independence and fulfilment in the free use of their talents, but within a social framework which honours the ethic of care, rather than lines up against it. Some of these policies have been working well in Scandinavia for decades. In contrast to the neo liberal US which after 11 years of intense political struggle delivered a meagre 3 months of unpaid family and medical leave, northern Europe offers paid parental leave, sick leave and carer’s leave, as well as shorter working hours.

But any Left project must go deeper than this, changing our social imagination. We need to challenge the ways market relations are presently inscribing their harsh tattoo upon our social and even most intimate relationships. They are reshaping our tolerance and generosity towards vulnerability into an identifiable hostility to dependency, where the strong all too often ‘take aim against the weak’ or where, as Richard Sennett argues,
welfare needs are discussed in ‘acid tones,’ and ‘pervaded by insinuations of parasitism.’ We need to stop seeing care work as the sad fate of the loser, and to start giving it a place
of pride as a valuable and humanising part of every citizen’s life. As Nancy Fraser suggests, we need to transcend the neo-liberal ideal of the universal breadwinner
and move towards the ideal of the universal caregiver, involving men as well as women in honouring the ethic of care.

So let’s imagine another ad. It is the 2010 election campaign. This time the face is not a sleek master of the universe like Dempsey, but the careworn one of a new Senate candidate. A long time carer of her own disabled child, she is a member of the successful new Carer’s Party, which is poised to hold the balance of power in the Senate. She wants a New Deal for the care sector. The slogan is: ‘No one giving or receiving care to be living in poverty by 2015.’  She pauses, and swings full front to the camera. “Because they are worth it.”

[i] Peter Moss: There are Alternatives, Markets and Democratic Experimentalism In Early childhood Education and care, Working Paper no 53 27th August 2009, Bernard van Leer Foundation, The Netherlands, and the Bertelsmann Stiftung, Germany.

[ii] Helen Trinca & Catherine Fox: Better Than Sex; How a Whole Generation became Hooked on Work, Sydney, Random House, 2004

[iii] See George Megalogenis, ‘Ageing makes health biggest employer’, the Australian, September 18, 2009. and David Uren, ‘Population to now hit 35 million by 2049′ The Australian, September 18th , 2009.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>