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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

The World Transformed through Care by Helen Hester

The Labour Party conference in 2017 was accompanied by a four day festival, The World Transformed, where social reproduction was high on the agenda including at ‘Mums4Corbyn’ events. Helen Hester reviews the ideas and radical demands for rethinking care that were discussed, but argues activists must find better ways of acting in solidarity with many kinds of care giver, rather than only focusing on mothers.

Social reproduction ran like a red thread through The World Transformed this year, grounding many discussions in day-to-day practices of care – caring for spaces and environments, caring for oneself, and caring for each other. ‘Mums4Corbyn’ delivered some particular insights in this area, via a programme of events at Synergy Arts Centre. It is perhaps not surprising that childcare was high on the agenda here, but so too was elder care, sex work, social care, and reproductive labour in general.

Andrea Marie and Camille Barbagallo both impressed on the ‘Radical Childcare’ panel, addressing the need to develop progressive solutions to the current crises faced by caregivers. Both stressed the necessity of putting social reproduction at the heart of any leftist agenda, and advanced suggestions about how to achieve this. Barbagallo stressed that, in the face of today’s for-profit childcare providers, ‘another vision for care is not only possible, it is necessary.’ She proposed the establishment of Community Care Centres, in which workers and service users alike might have the autonomy to organize around their own needs.

This resonated with my own proposals, offered as part of the ‘Radical Demands from the Grassroots’ session. Just as Barbagllo’s vision of the Community Care Centre sought to integrate a range of intergenerational support services under the same roof, so too did my conception of cooperative living seek to re-imagine practices of care outside of isolated, disjointed, and dysfunctional living spaces. Pointing to the energy inefficient and labour intensive character of the single-family household, I argued that a renewed emphasis on community resources, collective housing, and socialized care practices could offer real opportunities for restructuring social reproduction.

Like Barbagallo, I touched upon the idea of communal kitchens and laundries, arguing that such a model would not only mitigate some burdens of unwaged reproductive labour, but also represent opportunities for investment in longer-lasting and more sustainable technologies. This could be extended to positive advances such as high-spec, communally accessible workshops, health facilities, media suites, labs, and maker spaces. Could a community hub model be a way of both protecting and extending the public library system by bringing new services within its remit? Could investment in collective housing that incorporates such services help improve quality of life, enabling new forms of domestic organization to emerge?  

One question following the ‘Radical Childcare’ panel queried the distribution of reproductive labour. Panellists had addressed the social reorganization of care, but what about gender dynamics within the family itself – the need to insist that men do more? This question tapped into some wider issues regarding the gendered distribution of care. Whilst there was widespread support for the idea that men should pull their weight, there was some disagreement regarding the best way to approach this. Vanessa Olorenshaw stressed that feminists should centre their demands upon mothers in particular, given that mothers’ face distinctive challenges, and make disproportionately high contributions in the home.

Time use studies indicate that the distribution of reproductive labour does indeed remain imbalanced, and it is important not to overlook this. My own argument, however, is that to explicitly prioritize mothers at the expense of different kinds of caregiver is to risk excluding important demographics from our emancipatory ambitions. Beyond a conventional childcare framework, one finds important historical examples of what radical, autonomous, self-organized mutual aid might really look like – examples that both resonate with and are clearly distinct from the kind of idealised collective arrangements Barbagallo and I discussed.

In the absence of state support, queer and trans* people (frequently led by people of colour) have had to establish their own communities of care without wider infrastructures of support and in the face of social opprobrium. The collective response to the AIDS epidemic – in which lesbians and others from the LGBTQIA* community stepped in to provide much-needed material support – is one example here. We might also think of groups such as Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, whose work in the 1970s was aimed at supporting homeless queer youth in NYC. Queer, trans*, and non-binary people continue to form autonomous networks of social reproduction today, in the face of employment discrimination, threats of gendered violence, increased vulnerability to homelessness, and so on. These represent important examples of autonomous, self-directed care, typically being performed in the face of multiple pressures and few resources – forms of care that are too often overlooked and excluded from contemporary activist interventions seeking to address social reproduction.

In this respect, the work of emerging activists such as Ada Cable, Nat Raha, and Joni Cohen points to the differential distribution of some of the most intense burdens of reproductive labour. We would do well to learn from them as we articulate our radical demands around care. Certainly, we must not position the needs of mothers as in competition with the needs of other caregivers. The autonomous self-organizing of mothers and of groups like Mums4Corbyn are capable of having positive outcomes ‘for the many’; care work underpins all biological and social life, after all – and let’s not forget that many LGBTQIA* people are parents too. However, we must acknowledge that there are many kinds of caregiver, with many kinds of needs. We must find better ways of acting in solidarity with all of them if we really hope to see the world transformed.

Helen Hester is an Associate Professor of Media and Communications at University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, and theories of work. She is the author of Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY, 2014) and After Work: What's Left and Who Cares? (Verso, forthcoming) co-authored with Nick Srnicek.

NB - The terms LGBTQIA* and trans* are often used with an asterisk within queer activism to reflect the fact that they are umbrella terms. They are not exhaustive, and the asterisk serves to ensure that non-binary or gender non-conforming people, are not excluded from debates that are relevant to them.