Radical Care as the Foundation for a Better World

Dan Silver and Sarah Marie Hall

This blog post serves as an introduction to a collection of essays and articles edited by Dan Silver and Sarah Marie Hall, all of which will be published throughout March on The Sociological Review Blog

We are currently living through what Nancy Fraser identifies as a ‘crisis of care’, where the labour that builds the foundations of society goes both unrecognised and undervalued. Fraser argues that this crisis of care ‘is very similar to the way that nature is treated in capitalist societies, as an infinite reservoir from which we can take as much as we want’ and which can be ‘stretched to the breaking point’.

Care is crucial for the creation and maintenance of personal and social connections that in turn enable infrastructures and institutions to function. Care is needed to raise children, protect vulnerable people and support the elderly. It sustains the connections between friends, family, and communities. It keeps people healthy, educated, housed. Care is the foundation to everyday life: as much an embodied practice as a normative moral framework. Without care society there would be no economy, culture, or politics.

Illustration by Fran Murphy

There is evidence of the weakening of public infrastructures of care, and their investment, under austerity politics. In the UK context, from which we both write and research, the public sector has seen almost unprecedented cuts levelled at education, welfare and social care budgets. These are gendered policies, affecting sectors and services that mainly employ and benefit women. However this lack of value placed on/for social reproduction and care infrastructure is not a new phenomenon, but is now enmeshed in the politics of neoliberalism, individualism and profiteering. Our collection for The Sociological Review touches on these and other emergent themes from thinking radically about care-full futures; in this first piece we identify the foundations from which we can build these futures and ideas as a collective endeavour.   

Through his Small Town Inertia longform photography, Jim Mortram reflects the cruel realities of the crisis of social reproduction as it happens in everyday lives. Mortram’s sensitive and collaborative approach is based on listening to the experiences of people who are suffering due to government policies that have decimated the safety net of social security. His work highlights the injustice of what happens when the care is subsumed under the logic of capitalism. Mortram reflects on how he witnesses pain and suffering, where people ‘literally break down in my arms, utterly beaten, terrified, on the verge of suicide as a direct result of cuts to vital services, especially with respect to cuts made to mental health provision’. This reminds us of Julia Twigg’s work on identifying the bodywork required for carework, and Hochschild’s notion of ’emotional labour’ and the management of self in the workplace, including the home.

Bev Skeggs seeks to differentiate between values and capitalist logics of value. Value is defined by Skeggs as quantifiable, economic and measurable. Working with concepts such as caring and cooperation – generated in opposition to the logic of capital – she argues that values are, by comparison, cultural, ethical, qualitative and are inherently difficult to measure. Values are also the foundations of a more radically caring society. According to Skeggs, we can draw on caring and to ‘think beyond’ the logic of capital and show how values will always haunt value. The dominance of the capitalist logics of value over values of care can be seen in how decisions are made to cut mental health provision to achieve financial savings, or that make people move out of their homes rather than come up with ways to bring empty homes back into use.

Since the 1970s feminist scholars and activists have made the case that care should be at the centre of any analysis of society and economy, and more than this, that it should also be the foundation for struggles against the injustices of capitalism. As explained by Jeffries, care represents the ‘vital habitat of potential and actual anti-capitalist politics’. Campaigners at the Women’s Budget Group, a network led by principles of feminist economics, have developed Plan F – a set of policy recommendations for a caring and sustainable economy, in which they include reversing public spending cuts, investing in social infrastructure, and strengthening workers rights across the economic spectrum. Plan F is a direct response to austerity policies, in so far as state budgets related to social reproduction (across health, welfare, education, social care) have not only seen a lack of investment, but also sustained and direct cut-backs at the same time. Plan F, then, is ‘a feminist plan for recovery that stimulates job creation by putting money in the hands of poorest, and middle-income people, and invests in social as well as physical infrastructure’.

Across the world, there is growing recognition of and resistance to the dominance of capitalism over care through organising, activism, and everyday relations of care. For example, multiple and overlapping everyday practices of care can be observed in the Swan Women’s Centre, a grassroots charity in Bootle, North Liverpool that creates spaces of therapeutic support through relationships rooted in listening, mutual respect, and participation. Communities are organising for care to be more of a central concern through policy, as seen through Witnesses to Hunger. Through this participatory action  research programme, women in Philadelphia have come together to use photographs and testimonies to becomeadvocates for their own families and others, and they work towards creating lasting changes on a local, state and national level. Barcelona’s radical council is experimenting with municipal childcare centres that play a social and educational role for the neighbourhood. Mags Crean’s research also shows how working class women in Ireland have developed a ‘care consciousness’ to identify the need for social change based on the foundations of care and relationships. This echoes Hanisch’s call for valuing the personal as political, in its own terms; the act of bringing people together to share in activities and experiences has prefigurative political potential.

The foundations of and infrastructure for radical care are everywhere and happening everyday, but they are not always valued nor connected with each other.

Coming back to Fraser, if people working in communities can situate their work in the crisis of care and identify their approaches of radical care as a response to this, there could be a powerful basis for linking them together in a wider movement for social transformation. How can sociology contribute support towards a grounded movement of radical care?

Sociologists can work alongside spaces of resistance, the experiments in radical care where people are putting into practice ways of living beyond the capitalist logic of value. In these spaces, sociologists can collaborate with publics through a genuine exchange of ideas and knowledge – on their terms – to contribute towards social change through mutual education. Sociology can be useful to support publics to help situate their practices in critical theories of radical care – connecting personal troubles with public issues (see Wright-Mills, The Sociological Imagination).

We can draw on the legacies of popular education to help us think through how we might develop practices of meaningful exchange between sociologists and people practising radical care. Popular education is a participatory process that connects people’s experiences with critical theories through education, research and community organising. Popular educators support publics to situate their everyday problems in a social, historical, and political context and use this knowledge to develop strategies for social change. An inspiring example is the Highlander Folk School, which was founded by Miles Horton in 1932. Despite Jim Crow laws that forbade integration, the School was open to both working class white and African American participants. Education, community organising, and research were connected with each other to support social change. The Highlander Folk School was based on the belief that working class adults could learn together to advance social change, and could be effectively supported by ‘democratic teacher-learners’. The idea of the Highlander Center can encourage us to reflect upon about how we can practice public sociology in meaningful and embedded ways.

In a speech at Atlanta University to the First Sociological Club in 1897, WEB Du Bois made a blistering critique of the problems of sociology. Within this speech, Du Bois argued that ‘the trouble is we despise the day of little things – we neglect little movements, small efforts, [and] tentative experiments’. By developing the foundations for mutual education with communities developing ‘tentative experiments’ in radical care, we will also strengthen the possibilities and responsibilities of a public-facing academia. Developing processes of mutual education, for instance, with those people and groups leading change (or even maintaining continuity) in sites of resistance can broaden the conceptual frames we use and expand our methodological foundations to be made more relevant to contemporary struggles for social transformation.

Doing so will help to realise the ambitions of the Sociological Review Manifesto, which states that: ‘To renew the critical and creative appeal of sociology, we need to be responsive to what can be opened up, conceptually as much as practically, whilst things are closed down: about what could be thought differently, and how that creates more possibilities for what could and should be done next, both in the academy and outside of it’.

Dan Silver is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on social justice and critical participatory action research methods.

Sarah Marie Hall is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Manchester. With her research she takes a critical feminist approach to everyday life in times of crisis and socio-economic change.

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