The coronavirus crisis has highlighted how the welfare state of the future must be built on an ethic of care rather than self-interest.
Capitalism is the dominant political-economic system of our time. In its neoliberal form, it is premised on giving primacy to the market in the organisation of social life. While it has been contested, it has retained a cognitive hegemony.
Neoliberal capitalism is not just an analytical framework for economic organisation—it is also normative, as it presents clear ideas as to how society should be organised, with the market providing the over-riding ethical context. It endorses an entrepreneurial individualism that is self-interested and, as it regards such traits as natural and desirable, is antithetical to care in deep and profound ways.
Neoliberal capitalism encourages individuals to be highly competitive, be it in relation to job security, material wealth, social status, personal relationships or moral worth. Within this frame, care is a subordinated, secondary value.
Money is the most widely used measure of success and the dominant indicator of competence and value—the great common denominator through which all things are made comparable and measured. Spending time caring for others who are not able to pay a high market rate for care (including children and poorer, invalided adults) begins to appear very unwise, even quixotic, a waste of money-making time.
Yet life depends on care. It is essential for the survival of humanity and the planet.
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The devaluation of care did not begin with capitalism. The distinction drawn by Descartes in 1641 between mind and body, res cogitans and res extensa (‘thinking things’ and ‘extended things’), encouraged binary and hierarchical thinking in relation to humans. Thinking things had control over extended things, namely nature. As women and indigenous people were part of nature, they were subject to what Descartes called the ‘masters and possessors of nature’.
Care thus became defined as part of nature rather than society and, as such, an exploitable thing—an essential or instinctual quality of women, something they did ‘naturally’. And, as it was assumed to be an innate female disposition, care was not seen as work requiring recognition or reward.
The belief that caring was not human-defining work was translated over time into a view, in Europe and elsewhere, that it was not citizenship-defining work. TH Marshall’s influential concept of citizenship centred on the idea of the citizen as an individual who held civil, political and socio-economic rights (under the protection of the state). Citizenship was not equated with having caring responsibilities or being in need of care.
While caring was recognised in the postwar period in Europe—including through child welfare payments and publicly-funded care for children and older people—much of the economic security which accrued to people in adulthood, and especially in old age, remained tied to their prior employment status. In the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Lisbon treaty, promotion of employee rights is the primary concern in this regard.
Yet the holes in welfare systems in Europe became very evident in the Covid-19 pandemic. The high rates of deaths in nursing homes showed that older, vulnerable people were not a priority, and neither were their carers.
Being an adult and a citizen remained in the post-industrial era closely aligned with the ideals of independence and autonomy; there were no ‘good’ dependencies for adults. Children and adults without employment, for whatever reason, were and are assigned a denigrated dependency status—albeit this is changing slowly and some countries are recognising unpaid family caring for insurance purposes.
The pervasiveness of this perspective is evident in the institutionalisation of forms of ‘active’ and ‘responsible’ citizenship in contemporary Europe. Everyone is expected to be an active economic agent, including people with disabilities. The unemployed and ‘the poor’ are subjected to moral appraisal and punishment when they fail to activate and become valuable employed citizens.
Because being dependent is shameful, by extension, caring for those who are dependent and in need of care has become shaming by association. Caring is not seen as real work, especially if undertaken without pay within families.
Capitalism is not without morality. But, being governed by money-making, it not only enables violence and killing in organised warfare for profit; it also allows people to die from neglect, be it through poverty, homelessness and/or lack of healthcare.
Yet while people are self-interested, they are not purely self-interested. They have relational ties which bind them affectively to others, even to unknown others—they are also altruistic. Things matter beyond money, status and power, because the desire to love and care parallels the desire to consume and to own: homines curans (caring people) are as sociologically real as homo economicus.
One of the things we have learned during the pandemic is that humanity is deeply interdependent. This relatedness feeds into morality: our need of others enables us to think of others. People can identify morally appropriate behaviour in themselves and others and these orient and regulate their actions. The pandemic has taught us that, in times of illness, care is not an optional extra: it makes the difference between life and death.
To bring homines curans to life politically, however, the concept must first be brought to life intellectually. This requires a new narrative, one that is framed ‘outside the master’s house’ of mainstream, male-dominated thinking about social change. There are ‘cultural residuals’ of hope, which can be reclaimed intellectually for politics.
One of the sites of these cultural residuals is the affective domain of love, care and solidarity—the relationships that concern people and give their daily lives purpose. Although talk of care discourses is politically ‘domesticated’ if not silenced, affirming the nurturing values which underpin care relations can help reinvigorate resistance to neoliberalism. It can create a new language and a new set of priorities for politics.
Building political models on the presumption that decisions are made simply in terms of economic and social self-interest (which is the norm in party politics) fails to do justice to the ties, bonds and commitments which bind people to one another in defiance of self-interested calculation. It undermines the solidarity and other-centredness shown in many local communities during the pandemic.
It is time to frame a new politics of care and affective justice which contests the narrative of purely self-interested politics. This is necessary, not only due to the pre-eminent importance of care as a political ethic, but because people need an intellectual and political pathway to counter the narratives of fear, hate and aggrandisement that govern a world guided by capitalist morality.
This is part of a series on the Coronavirus and the Welfare State supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Kathleen Lynch is professor emerita of equality studies at University College Dublin and a professor in the School of Education. She played a leading role in establishing the UCD Equality Studies Centre (1990) and its School of Social Justice (2004-5). Her latest book is Care and Capitalism (Polity Press, forthcoming).